Winning games away from the comfort of your home court in the Big 12 is hard, and the Kansas State Wildcats continue to make it more difficult than it needs to be.
This isn’t something that’s new to Wildcat fans, it’s just not something they’ve been used to dealing with for nearly a decade.
During the darkest era of K-State basketball, when Jim Wooldridge went 9-53 in road games from 2000-2006, it felt like the Wildcats never won on the road. But when Bob Huggins and Frank Martin arrived in Manhattan, things changed. Those two combined to go 33-30 on the road, changing the losing culture for the Wildcats.
Bruce Weber, with a senior led team in 2013 accomplished something that Martin never could, winning a share of the Big 12 title and posting a 7-3 on the road. Without the leadership and experience he had on the floor last season, winning road games in 2014 has proved to be extremely difficult.
Seven days before the Wildcats lost at Baylor 87-73 in double overtime Saturday, they played their best game of the season, a 74-57 drubbing of the Texas Longhorns. Two days after that, they overcame a disastrous meltdown in regulation, and beat the Kansas Jayhawks 85-82 in overtime.
The difference? The Texas and Kansas games were at the friendly confines of Bramlage Coliseum. The Baylor game and those previous three losses came on the road.
That’s exactly the point. K-State is 13-1 in Manhattan this year, with that one loss coming in a season-opening loss to Northern Colorado. But in true road games, the Wildcats are 1-5, the only win coming against TCU, the worst team in the conference.
If there were ever a team you could call Jekyll and Hyde, it’s Bruce Weber’s 2013-2014 Wildcats.
K-State has been great at home. The 1-5 road record looks terrible on paper, and that’s all that really matters in the end. Look a little deeper though, and in four of those five losses, the Wildcats had plenty of chances to win, and in some cases, like against Baylor, should have come back to Manhattan with a victory.
Think of a way to lose on the road, and K-State has done it.
They were blown out in Lawrence against Kansas, no real need to delve deeper into that one.
At Texas, the Wildcats lost 67-64 when Jonathan Holmes hit a three-pointer at the buzzer. A defensive lapse by Thomas Gipson allowed Holmes to find space in the corner, and the Longhorns’ best player buried the shot. If that game goes to overtime, K-State had a huge advantage because center Cameron Ridley had fouled out.
The chance was there, and the Wildcats had a huge breakdown that cost them.
In Ames, Iowa, K-State continually found ways to battle back against Iowa State, but eventually lost 81-75. The Wildcats had the ball, down three points with less than 30 seconds left, but Shane Southwell took an ill-advised and contested three pointer that was blocked back into his face and the Cyclones iced the game at the line after that.
Again, the opportunity was present, but poor decisions and pitiful execution let them down.
The game against West Virginia wasn’t much different. K-State would fall behind, and then dig itself out of that hole thanks to the play of Gipson and Marcus Foster. After the Mountaineers stretched their lead to 68-61 in the second half, K-State held them scoreless for the next two minutes, pulling within one point with 2:23 remaining.
It didn’t matter. K-State’s late-game road issues appeared yet again. The Mountaineers finished the game on a 13-4 run, aided by two costly Wildcat turnovers, missed free throws and pitiful defense.
Deja Vu. The Kansas State Wildcats managed to lose a game rather than finding a way to win it.
Which leads us to Saturday’s loss to a struggling Baylor team that hadn’t won a home game in 35 days. They were 3-8 in conference play.
For much of Saturday’s game in Waco, it looked like K-State was going to break this season’s disturbing road trend. The Wildcats held the lead for nearly 35 minutes of regulation and Baylor only led for one minute and 38 seconds.
Seemingly in control, with under 8:54 remaining, the Wildcats held a 51-41 lead. But they only managed six more points from that point until the end of regulation, hitting only two of 10 shots, while committing two turnovers.
With 24 seconds remaining, and with Foster had a chance to seal the victory by making a pair of free throws. He made the first but missed the second, giving Baylor life. An opportunity they cashed in on when Brady Heslip nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer after Baylor grabbed three offensive rebounds on the final possession.
Foster missed another free throw late in the first overtime that would have given K-State a one-point lead, which led to the second overtime. By that point, the Wildcats couldn’t keep up with Baylor anymore due to foul trouble and a rash of injuries.
These four road losses, all of which have been lost late, should be of great concern to Weber. In critical, late game situations of these four games, the Wildcats have made only six-of-29 shots from the floor and turned it over nine times.
So what has to happen to buck this trend? Taking the experiences from these four losses, and learning from them. Learn to not take your foot off of the pedal. This is a young and inexperienced team, which somewhat explains the results on the road in conference play.
It’s a rudderless ship at times. Gipson has tried to step up and be the team leader, but it’s hard to do when in recent weeks he’s been outplayed by DJ Johnson.
The Wildcats lean heavily on freshman for scoring, and have asked Foster to be the closer late in games. It hasn’t taken yet. K-State’s guaranteed to have a losing record on the road this year, which is the first time since 2007-08. That team also needed the majority of its scoring to come from freshman.
There is no magic formula to winning on the road. Making late free throws and not allowing a team four consecutive shots in a single possession is a good place to start.
You need players to step up with the game on the line. K-State doesn’t have the leadership to do that at this point, and it shows in its record.
If Foster is going to be that guy, and I believe he will be, as painful as those missed free throws must have been for him, he has to take that experience and learn from it. If he’s going to be “the guy” for Weber for the next three years, he must be able to sink free throws late in a game, or step up and make a game-winning shot.
You also need a bit of luck, and for the past month, the ball has rarely bounced K-State’s way in road games. It’s not unlike the K-State football team in that regard.
In 2012, they won every close game, catching nearly every break possible. But in 2013, they lacked leadership early, struggling with turnovers and losing several close games when victory was within arms reach in the fourth quarter. They didn’t let it bury them and the football Wildcats finished with a flurry and the next season looks very promising.
Weber should talk to Bill Snyder and use a similar message to get his Kansas State Wildcats to finish the campaign strong and head into the postseason with a head of steam. After all, NCAA Tournament games, aren’t road games.