Finally, the Kansas State Wildcats are again ranked, and sitting at No. 25. And now, after an epic 86-71 upset of now No. 17 West Virginia, I’d like to formally explain why I told you so.
I get it…
The last time they won the Big 12 title was in 2008 under former head coach Deb Patterson—the first they shared with Texas in 2003. They have been out-rebounded in three of their last five games. When the team broke into the Top 25, they immediately lost to the University of Northern Iowa. And in the Wildcats’ conference opener, they were annihilated by No. 3 Baylor.
If you want to take this road, feel free. But first thing’s first: I’m not here to compare this team’s successes to a perennial powerhouse like Baylor, Notre Dame or UConn.
I’m here to show why this team is poised to return their program to greatness; to show why they will be the surprise of the Big 12; and why, against all odds, this team has the makings of a competitor in one of the toughest conferences in women’s basketball.
Senior guard Kindred Wesemann came into last Thursday’s game against Baylor needing only 10 points to notch 1,000 on her career as a Wildcat. She posted 24, and become the 40th player in K-State history to earn the accolade. And she’s been in double figures in scoring in 12 of 14 games this season.
It doesn’t take a seasoned analyst to see—and feel— that Wesemann is the Wildcats’ leader on the floor. She carries herself with poise, keeps a cool head in the thick of things, and is the first to address a teammate with praise or constructive criticism. At times, I find myself wanting to ask her how to better my jump shot (which is non-existent).
Since her first season began in 2013, she’s started 87 of 108 games played. And ever since Wesemann was a freshman, she’s had an absolutely lethal 3-pointer.
During her junior campaign, Wesemann led the Big 12 in shots made beyond the arc per game with 2.7, and made at least one 3-pointer in every game but one. Sunday brought her career connections beyond the arc to 218, good for sixth in program history.
At the start of the 2016-2017 season, she was 21st in school history for career assists (229) and sixth in school history for career free throw percentage (.794). She was named to the 2016 All-Big 12 Second Team.
And to top it off, Wesemann knocked down four three-pointers against Baylor AND West Virginia.
However, if Wesemann is the spirit of the Wildcats, senior center Breanna Lewis is the spark.
No, the powder keg.
When teams scout out K-State, they spend most of their time watching Lewis. If they don’t, she makes them pay for it.
Lewis is an All-America candidate, and was named to the 2016-17 Preseason All-Big 12 Team, the 2016 All-Big 12 First Team, and the 2016 Big 12 All-Defensive Team. After Sunday, she is now ranked 17th on the K-State career scoring list with 1,287 points and 12th in career rebounds with 710.
Possibly her best tribute is the massive blocks she can throw up. Lewis holds the records for blocks in a single game (8) and blocks in a single season (97), and she has 223 in her previous three seasons with the Wildcats.
Against West Virginia, Lewis strutted for 23 points, 9 total rebounds and 2 steals. And she’s one of the main reasons the Wildcats racked up 54 points in the paint against the then No. 13 team in the nation. She leads the team, averaging 14.7 points per game. Wesemann is right behind her at 14.4 points per game.
Lewis is a patient player, something Mittie’s team wields with dignity. But when it’s Lewis’ time to strike, not a soul in Manhattan won’t know once the entirety of Bramlage Coliseum erupts with a massive “LEWWWWWWW.”
To say that Wesemann and Lewis are the heart and soul of this Wildcat team is an egregious understatement. The words to capture how polarizing of players they are do not exist.
The Wildcats boast a capable rotation of players at every position not held by Wesemann and Lewis, and have the bench production to back it up.
Junior transfer Karyla Middlebrook is finding her niche on Mittie’s team, and at just the right time. Middlebrook averages 7.4 points per game, with a 19-point performance against UNI as her highest.
During her three seasons with Alabama, Middlebrook started 70 of 72 games. She settled in at second on the team in scoring in SEC games with 8.2 points per contest, and averaged 8.8 points overall, 4.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game last season. Middlebrook’s transfer to K-State only adds to the talented depth at guard behind Wesemann.
Beyond Middlebrook, the Cats find stability in junior guard Shaelyn Martin and junior forward Kaylee Page.
Martin has started in every game she played in her freshman and sophomore campaigns. She notched 292 defensive rebounds of her 388 total in two years, and added 202 assists to be ranked 26th on the school’s career assists list.
Against the Mountaineers, Martin put up a 10-point performance and dished out 8 assists.
Page started in all 32 games for the Wildcats last season as a freshman. She racked up 135 total rebounds, averaging 4.2 per game, 61 assists, 17 blocks and 15 steals, while adding 211 points to a K-State team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2016.
For the Cats, she’s a utility if they’ve ever seen one. Page and Wesemann have actually combined to make 62 of 101 three-pointers this season.
Senior forward Jessica Sheble and sophomore guard Kayla Goth fill in the holes for the Cats coming off the bench, but a fresh face is already adding to the depth: freshman Peyton Williams.
Williams was ranked as the No. 20 forward in the nation by ESPN Hoopgurlz, and came from a very small, private school in Topeka, Kan. She was named Big 12 Freshman of the Week twice, the last for her efforts in the Wildcats’ upset over then No. 23 Auburn. Williams posted 11 points in the upset, and notched her second game with 10 or more points.
Overall, the talent in K-State’s depth has enough firepower to keep team’s guessing, especially in the Big 12. Mittie never has to worry about a position not being filled.
The Man Himself
This year the Cats got out to a 9-0 start under Mittie—the fourth time in history and the best start to a season since the 2008-09 season. Their first loss came to the 4-time defending national champions and No.1 ranked UConn in the Huskies’ first-ever visit to the state of Kansas.
Mittie has won over 500 games in his career as a head coach and is one of the winningest active coaches in NCAA Division I.
A brief history: Mittie came to K-State before the 2014-15 season, and has only experienced one losing season in his 24 years as a head coach. Teams coached under him have advanced to the NCAA or WNIT tournaments 17 times, where his record is 17-15.
He made an immediate impact with the Wildcats in his first season, winning eight more games than the previous season. K-State’s scoring defense rose to 44th in the nation, and the overall defense ranked 12th in steals and 42nd in blocked shots. In the Big 12, the Cats snagged the first place mark for steals, the second place mark in scoring defense and the third place mark in blocked shots.
And to top it all off, the 2014-15 Wildcats snagged 374 steals which is good for the second-most in program history.
Last season, the Mittie impact should have made headlines. Defensively, the Wildcats boasted 157 blocked shots (fourth in school history) and led the Big 12 in steals per game with 9. Offensively, the team averaged 64.4 points per game, the highest for the program in eight seasons. The Cats also notched 2183-pointers last season, ranking third in the Big 12 in 3-point field goals per game (6.8).
In layman’s terms, Mittie brought this team out of the depths it was headed toward, and hasn’t stopped since. His team is 2-2 against ranked opponents this season, and after the WVU upset, is now ranked No. 25.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying the Kansas State Wildcats are the next UConn Huskies — definitely not implying that. Two of their three losses this season have been blowouts to the No.1 and No. 3 teams in the nation—losses that can be chalked up to being purely outplayed and outmatched.
What I am saying, however, is this is only the start of something big in Manhattan.
K-State’s previous trip to the top 25 was their first since January of 2012. And if this is truly to be a season of firsts—in a while—then the Big 12, indeed, has another thing coming.
This team needs but one chance. Give them that chance and the Cats will not only keep this New Years’ resolution, but surpass it by miles.