There was a moment during Kansas State’s 78-75 loss against Kansas over the weekend when the only emotion Bruce Weber felt was frustration.
It happened early in the second half and resulted in four shots from the Jayhawks in a single possession. Ochai Agbaji, Jalen Wilson and Christaun Braun all missed three-pointers in the span of 31 seconds, but KU still got points because it kept grabbing offensive rebounds until Wilson was able to convert a put-back layup. You’ve heard of second-chance points. Those were fourth-chance points.
“Sometimes we were there and we still didn’t get them,” Weber said afterward. “There was one time they got three in a row and I’m just like, ‘Come on, guys. Somebody has got to find a way to get a rebound.’”
The Jayhawks went on to out-rebound the Wildcats by a margin of 45 to 23. Few teams can overcome such a deficit on the glass.
K-State’s inability to secure rebounds against KU highlighted a lingering problem for the Wildcats. They aren’t getting nearly enough production from their front court. Saturday was the first time they were manhandled in the paint by an opponent, but it wasn’t the first time their big men looked like a weakness.
The team’s top three rebounders are all guards. Mark Smith is averaging an impressive 8.1 boards per game, followed by Selton Miguel (4.9) and Nijel Pack (3.7). Kaosi Ezeagu (3.6) is the team’s top rebounder in the front court, but he averages the same number Markquis Nowell, a 5-foot-8 point guard.
Further complicating matters is the fact that none of K-State’s forwards are making up for their lack of rebounds elsewhere. Ismael Massoud leads the front court with 7.3 points per game. Davion Bradford is only averaging 4.3.
Things have gotten so bad inside that Weber has begun using a four guards in the starting lineup and five guards late in games. In each of K-State’s past two contests, the Wildcats went with a “super small” lineup that featured Smith down low at center.
That strategy worked against Texas. Not so much against Kansas.
KU center David McCormack had 11 points and 15 rebounds all by himself. K-State’s entire front court combined for eight points and three rebounds.
“They have got to get better,” Weber said. “That is just a fact of life. I’m not downgrading them. They’re good guys. They just have to be better. If they’re not going to score they still need to rebound.”
What is the answer? Good question.
When Bradford can avoid foul trouble, it seems like K-State is best off surrounding him with four guards. Even though the 7-footer has regressed since he averaged 7.7 points and 4.3 rebounds as a freshman, he is still the most well-rounded big man on the roster.
K-State began the season favoring a lineup that featured Ezeagu at the five and Massoud at the four. But Ezeagu hasn’t been productive since he entered COVID protocol earlier this month and Massoud doesn’t bring much to the floor outside of the occasional three-pointer.
The Wildcats have tried playing Massoud at center, but he isn’t a good enough inside defender to play major minutes there.
One other option could be Carlton Linguard. The junior from San Antonio has had his moments while playing limited moments this month. Weber has even said he has earned himself more playing time moving forward. But he hasn’t scored more than four points or grabbed more than five rebounds in a game this season.
Weber may need to get creative starting Tuesday when K-State heads to No. 4 Baylor for its next game. It’s hard to win games in the Big 12 without a serviceable front court.