The Kansas State Wildcats are going dancing for the first time since 2014, and Wesley Iwundu could spark a Cinderella run.
Bruce Weber headed a 21-13 squad that finished a meager 8-10 in the Big 12. Despite the struggles in one of college basketball’s premier conference, the Wildcats clinched a berth to the NCAA Tournament after outlasting Wake Forest on Tuesday night. K-State dropped 95 points on the Demon Deacons, and it’s especially surprisingly because they rank 196th in points per game. Most of the Wildcats games are won on the defensive end, which allows just 61.6 points a night, good for 61st in the country.
Four players scored in double-figures for Kansas State: Wesley Iwundu, Kamau Stokes, D.J. Johnson and Barry Brown. As a team, they finished with a clip of 66 percent from the field, and limited Wake to a modest 47 percent. After Tuesday’s victory, the Wildcats are on a bit of a hot streak after winning four of their last five games. Two of those dubs have come against TCU and Baylor, and Mar. 9 was the second time this year the Bears have fallen to Kansas State.
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Iwundu has remained one of Weber’s most consistent guys throughout the year, and his versatility is something that keeps him involved even when he’s not scoring. The Texas native is having his best season, and it just so happens that he’s a senior on a team who’s actually capable of pulling off an upset or two. So far, Iwundu’s averaging 12.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists a night in 34 games. He’s also shooting 48 percent from the field, an improbable 36.3 percent from and 75.8 percent from the charity stripe.
All of his stats get better in conference play, and it’s impossible to overlook how impressive that is. He shot 40 percent from three, scored 13.3 points, grabbed 7.4 boards and handed out 3.6 dimes a night in 18 conference games. In total rebounds and assists, Iwundu ranks eighth and ninth in the conference, respectively.
K-State had beaten Baylor in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament before losing to West Virginia, and Iwundu was oddly quiet in both games. He scored just 21 points and had six rebounds and five assists despite playing a ton of minutes. In the shootout against Wake Forest, however, Iwundu produced more than the two games.
He was, undoubtedly, the best player on the floor Tuesday and dropped 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Wake not being known for their defense gave Iwundu a platform to dominate, and dominate he did. It was a steady balance of backdoor cuts and high pick-and-roll drives, but it’s clear Iwundu has one speed: fast. By the end of the night, the 6-7 senior attempted 13 free throws and connected on 11, a much better clip than his season average.
After seeing them succeed in a game with an electrifying pace, Kansas State has shown that they can play gritty and ugly, and flashy and pretty. And, more importantly, Iwundu displayed more versatility than we thought.
Their first-round matchup comes against the Cincinnati Bearcats, who are seeded sixth in the East. Mick Cronin coached his team to a 29-5 record, and they’ll be appearing the tournament for a seventh-straight season. The Bearcats have staved off upsets in their last two dances, but, in 2014, 12th-seeded Harvard had a miraculous win over them in the opening round. The Crimson and Wildcats may not be too similar, but stranger things have happened.
Syracuse’s run to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed was unlikely, but it happened; FGCU going to the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed was almost impossible, but it also happened. An 11 upsetting a six is routine, and the last March Madness without that upset was in 2004 — yes, you read that correctly. The last 12 tournaments have experienced that. Last year alone had three: Wichita State, Northern Iowa and Gonzaga.
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As vague as it is, Kansas State will need to make shots to beat the Bearcats. That’s just how it is. Even though they can play sloppy, defensive-minded basketball, the Bearcats are going to win if it’s a slugfest on that end. Not only are they fifth in the country with 60.8 points per game allowed, but they’re also 24-2 when keeping opponents under 70 points. The Wildcats are 6-10 when scoring less than 70, but 15-4 when beating that benchmark.
An upset is going to take a performance from Iwundu that’s similar to what he did against Wake. If he goes for 20-plus while handing out a decent amount of dimes, a victory isn’t far-fetched. Furthermore, the Wildcats are much hotter than the Bearcats are after coming off a 15-point defeat to SMU.
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