COLUMBIA — The Kansas State women’s basketball team began the season with relatively modest expectations.
They were coming off an 11th place conference finish and 4-12 Big 12 record and predicted to finish eighth in the conference in the Big 12 coaches preseason poll.
And after an 8-5 run through a tough non-conference schedule those predictions and expectations looked to be right on target.
Instead the No. 17 Wildcats have rolled through Big 12 play and are in the driver’s seat for a conference title with a 9-1 record and sole possession of first place. The Wildcats’ success has surprised the coaches that picked them to finish in the bottom half of the conference, and even their own head coach.
“I could never have imagined that at this stage in Big 12 play we would be 9-1,” Wildcats coach Deb Patterson said. “I think it’s been a wonderful ride for us, and at the same time there’s no way I could have expected it.”
The Wildcats have become the top team in the conference without the overwhelming individual performances players like Oklahoma center Courtney Paris or Oklahoma State point guard Andrea Riley bring. The Wildcats not only lead the Big 12 in assists and assist to turnover ratio, but they’ve been solid everywhere else.
“We’re not that dominant roster that Oklahoma brings to the floor,” Patterson said. “We’re just going to have to work and play well to win a basketball game. It doesn’t matter who we’re lined up against, we’re going to be challenged.”
While the Wildcats don’t have anyone in the race for Big 12 Player of the Year, they have gotten strong performances from Kimberly Dietz, junior forward Marlies Gipson and junior point guard Shalee Lehning. Dietz is the Wildcats’ leading scorer (15.4 ppg) and has emerged as a strong leader for KSU. Patterson has been especially pleased with Dietz’s eagerness to step forward and score when the Wildcats need a basket.
“She’s wanted the responsibility when times are tough to make the play,” Patterson said. “Coaches can call your number and ask you to try to make a play, but when you’re on the floor and you want to make the play it changes everything. That’s really what Kimberly’s brought this year. She wants to make the play, she wants the responsibility, when her team is in need, to be a factor.”
That mentality hasn’t always been there for Dietz. It has come as she matured from a freshman who was trying to figure out her role to one of three seniors on a team competing for a conference championship.
“It’s probably just my experience,” Dietz said. “I kind of know the ins and outs of Big 12 basketball.”
Lehning is the player who is mainly responsible for the Wildcats having the most assists and best assist to turnover ratio in the conference. She easily leads the Big 12 in assists with 6.3 per game — all others average less than five — and she also scores just over 10 points and grabs seven rebounds per game. It’s that well-rounded stat line that makes Patterson consider her to be one of the best guards in the country.
“She’s a throwback,” Patterson said. “Lehning I think just gives us a chance to be good.”
On the frontline, Gipson recovered from a knee injury that ended her 2006-2007 season after 16 games and is fourth in the conference in field goal percentage (54.5 %) and leads the Wildcats with 8.3 rebounds per game. While her statistics show her impact, Patterson is especially impressed with her intelligence on the court and her ability to run the defense on the floor.
“She’s kind of like Mike Singletary or a great middle linebacker, somebody that just sees things, communicates it and keeps you really solid in your defense,” Patterson said.
The Tigers have reason to be encouraged that they’ll be able to play with the conference leaders. The Tigers played well in their last two games at Mizzou Arena and almost came up with wins against Nebraska and No. 10 Oklahoma. MU let a 10-point lead with five and a half minutes to play slip away against the Huskers and was tied late with the high-powered Sooners.
“It made us realize that we can play to that level and we can play to that level all the time, not just with spurts all the time,” freshman forward Shakara Jones said.
While MU’s last two home performances serve as warnings to the Wildcats, they aren’t necessary because KSU can’t afford to overlook any team.
“It’s not hard at all for us, it’s not our nature to think anyone we’re going to play is an easy game,” Patterson said. “There’s no such thing for us.”