The Southeast Region's second round comes to a close Thursday night in Tucson with an intriguing matchup pitting the No. 5 seed Kansas State Wildcats against the Western Athletic Conference champs Utah State from the McKale Center.
Kansas State endured a rough patch through the middle of the season but finished strong with eight wins in the last 10 games to nab an at-large bid for its third NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four years. This will mark the Wildcats' 25th appearance in this event overall, going 31-28 over that time. K-State advanced to its 11th Elite Eight in last year's tourney before falling to eventual national runner-up Butler, 63-56, in the West Regional Final. The Wildcats went into this year's Big 12 Tournament as the four seed and riding a wave of confidence having defeated the likes of Kansas, Missouri and Texas during a six-game win streak before losing to Colorado, 87-75, in the conference quarterfinals. KSU also faced a host of tournament teams during a challenging non-conference slate, losing to Duke, UNLV and Florida while beating Gonzaga.
Utah State also makes a return trip to the Big Dance in 2011, its third consecutive appearance and eighth in the last 12 years. However, rarely have the Aggies capitalized on their opportunities, posting just six wins in 27 games over 20 all-time appearances. The 2011 campaign was an especially strong showing for Utah State, which captured the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title and tournament crown with a 77-69 triumph over Boise State The Aggies' only losses during a remarkable 30-3 season were to fellow tourney clubs BYU and Georgetown as well as their only league blemish to Idaho back on February 9, the last USU loss. The 30 wins tied Belmont, BYU and Duke for the second-most in the nation this year. Utah State fell to Texas A&M, 69-53, in the opening round of last year's tournament and has dropped six straight games at this event. The Aggies' last tourney win came back in 2001 when they took out No. 5 Ohio State, 77-68, in overtime.
K-State has won each of the previous four meetings with the Aggies. The two teams last met in 1998 when the Wildcats posted an 86-67 win at Bramlage Coliseum. This will be their first meeting in the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies have WAC Player of the Year senior Tai Wesley, a frontcourt force that led the club in scoring at 14.7 points per game, rebounding with 8.0 per contest and a solid 59.5 shooting percentage, good for second in the WAC. Junior Brockeith Pane runs the offense and averages 11.6 ppg with a team- leading 3.4 assists per game. Brian Green is the Aggies' top three-point threat with 75 on a conference-best 47.2 percent shooting. USU ranks third in36.8 the WAC in three-point field-goal percentage (36.8) and tops the league in overall shooting with a 47.0-percent accuracy. The offense stands third in the WAC at 72.2 ppg while the Aggies sport a stout defense that ranks third in the country in holding teams to a mere 58.2 ppg. That leads to a plus-13.9 scoring margin that has Utah State sitting sixth in the nation. Also in the Aggies favor is a 73.6 free-throw percentage, good for second in the WAC, and a solid plus-8.0 rebounding margin that places the club seventh in the country. Brady Jardine and Nate Bendall help add to that total, grabbing 7.1 and 5.9 rebounds, respectively, for Utah State while Pooh Williams chips in 8.4 ppg and 47 three-pointers on 36.2 percent shooting.
KSU showed a lot of determination this season, winning nine of its last 12 games after a disappointing 1-4 start to Big 12 play that sent the 'Cats tumbling from the national rankings. Senior Jacob Pullen is at the head of a capable, albeit unspectacular offense, ranking second in the Big 12 in scoring at 19.5 points per game while adding a team-high 3.7 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 48 steals. Pullen is also tied with the Wildcats' second-leading scorer, Rodney McGruder (11.4 ppg), with 67 three-pointers. McGruder, who also serves as the club's top rebounder (6.0 rpg), hits at a 41.1-percent clip from beyond while Pullen shoots 37.0 percent. Curtis Kelly adds 10.3 ppg, 5.3 boards and shoots 54.4 percent from the field. Jamar Samuels provides further depth with averages of 8.6 ppg and 5.3 rebounds. The Wildcats put up 73.1 points per game overall, but that total stands just seventh in a stacked Big 12 Conference. One reason for K-State's success coming down the stretch was an improved defense, which now sits sixth in the league (66.0 ppg) and lifts the 'Cats to the fifth-best scoring margin in the conference. KSU excelled in the rebounding game, posting the league's second-best margin (plus-6.7) but also struggled considerably in two key areas. A 64.7 free-throw percentage ranked just 11th in the Big 12 while the Wildcats' 43.8 field-goal percentage was 10th.
This matchup figures to be one of the more entertaining second-round games with both clubs deserving of their respective seedings. But the Aggies are the lower seed for a reason and did most of their damage against lesser competition inside the WAC. Simply put, Kansas State is better tested and stands more of a shot to advance well into the tournament if it holds the late-season form that turned things around.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Kansas State 68, Utah State 65