Kansas State senior guard Markquis Nowell (1) drives the lane around Kansas junior forward Jalen Wilson (10) during the first half of Tuesday’s Sunflower Showdown inside Bramlage Coliseum. Syndication: The Topeka Capital-Journal
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Hilton Coliseum
KenPom Prediction: 69-63, Iowa State
1 – Two-Headed Monster
There hasn’t been a better duo in college basketball on a night-to-night basis this season than Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson.
If the season ended today, both of those players would be first-team All-Big 12 selections, and for good reason.
Nowell has been one of the league’s most electric playmakers and scorers from all three levels of the court, posting averages of 16.7 points and 8.2 assists per game with shooting splits of 41 percent from the field, 37 percent from 3-point range and 88 percent from the free throw line.
Nowell, one of the few returners from last season’s Kansas State team, has the second-highest assist rate in college basketball and leads the Big 12 in that same metric. His 4.0 win shares (which measures who has the biggest hand in a team winning) this season leads the Big 12.
“Nowell is tremendous in transition,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “Shooting the ball with a lot of confidence, making plays for other people. His assist numbers are off the charts. Really good in transition. Really good off the ball screen. Really tough cover one-on-one. He’s so fast.”
Johnson very well might have the best case for Big 12 Player of the Year through seven league games. The Florida transfer is averaging 18.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game with shooting splits of 55 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 76 percent from the free throw line.
Kansas State runs most of its offense with the idea of creating easy isolation opportunities for Johnson or getting Nowell working off of the high pick-and-roll. Jerome Tang’s team has found success with lobs when teams over-play on Johnson in order to blow up the Wildcats’ actions.
In other words, the Wildcats will have a counter to whatever Iowa State throws at them from a scouting perspective defensively.
“Johnson is strong, physical, aggressive,” Otzelberger said. “Gets downhill, gets to the rim, gets to the foul line, rebounding like crazy.”
While this duo has been playing some of the league’s best ball, there is no doubt that Nowell and Johnson carry perhaps the league’s biggest load for their team. They’re the only two players on Kansas State’s roster with usage rates above 25 percent and nearly everything the Wildcats do comes with the goal of creating opportunities for the pair.
Holding this duo in check will be one of the toughest defensive tasks Iowa State has faced to this point in the season. That’s true from a personnel standpoint and from a pure x’s and o’s ability to create opportunities for their best players standpoint.
“Those guys are playing as well as anybody in the league,” Otzelberger said. “Both of them are.”
2 – Get Out And Go
Nobody in the league has played faster in Big 12 play than Kansas State, and really only TCU and Texas have come particularly close. The Wildcats want to get out and run to create easy opportunities in transition.
Nowell is one of the best in the country at turning turnovers or transition opportunities into easy run-outs. He’s one of the quickest guards in the country and lethal once he’s allowed to get into the open floor.
Iowa State will need to do a great job of taking care of the basketball and running good offense with great pace, making great cuts, setting great screens, etc. just to keep the game at the Cyclones’ desired pace. This is one of the places having senior guard Caleb Grill, and the impact he has on opposing defenses is important for Iowa State.
Grill did not practice for Iowa State on Monday, and it is unclear if he’ll be available for the Cyclones tonight after playing just 17 minutes and attempting only one shot in Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State.
“Other guys need to be ready to step up and play more minutes,” Iowa State head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “It gives our team some different strengths, but we prepare in such a way and practice in such a way that our depth, our versatility and how we prepare mentally, guys are ready to step in and do that… Next guy step up and we’ll do what we need to do to be successful to win the game.”
Iowa State is already one of the nation’s best at forcing teams into difficult jumpers, and if there’s one major knock on K-State, it is that this team will settle for difficult jumpers. The Wildcats rank No. 263 nationally in 3PA/FGA, which is a ratio of a team’s shots and the percentage of them that come from behind the 3-point line.
The Wildcats shoot a lot of 3-pointers for good reason, though, especially when it is Nowell or Johnson. Tang’s team runs good offense and shares the basketball with ease. They’re assisting more than 66 percent of their baskets as a result, which ranks No. 6 nationally.
“Phenomenal in transition,” Otzelberger said. “They’ve got length and versatility defensively all over the place. They’re a really good team. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. They do a lot of things well. They’re playing at a really high level.”
3 – Who Else?
Beating Kansas State comes down to being able to make Nowell and Johnson uncomfortable above all else, but there are a couple of other guys on the roster who are capable of going for big nights if given the opportunity.
Nae’Qwan Tomlin is the only other Wildcat averaging in double figures scoring at 10.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting from the field and 70 percent shooting from the free throw line. The 6-foot-10 freshman from Harlem recorded 15 points in K-State’s win over Kansas last week.
Ismael Massoud, Desi Sills, Tykei Greene and Abayomi Iyiola have all scored double digits during Big 12 play, but their contributions aren’t as consistently reliable as Nowell or Johnson.
The Wildcats need all those guys in order to win games at a high level, but Nowell and Johnson are the drivers and engines of this car.
Slow that duo down, and you’ll have a chance to stop the car.