With their opponent for the second round of the NCAA Tournament now identified, the Kansas State Wildcats prepare to take on the La Salle Explorers in West Regional action at the Sprint Center in Kansas City on Friday afternoon.
Led by head coach Bruce Weber, who took his Illinois team in 2005 to the title game of the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats are enjoying one of their most successful campaigns in program history. The team delivered a school-record 25 victories during the regular season and is now 27-7 overall, which is second- best behind only the 2009-10 squad which generated 29 wins.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats, winners of 12 of their last 15 outings overall, they posted triumphs over Texas and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Conference Tournament in this very same venue just last week, before bowing to bitter rival Kansas, 70-54, in the title game.
As for the 13th-seeded Explorers, winners of 21 games during the regular season as a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in more than two decades actually began on Wednesday night with an 80-71 victory over Boise State in first-round action in Dayton. Now 12-10 in this event all-time, La Salle is heading back to the place where they won their first and only national title, 59 years ago against Bradley in Kansas City.
Taking part in the NCAA Tournament for the 27th time in program history, the Wildcats have an overall record of 33-30, but have yet to bring home the title. The school has advanced to the Sweet 16 a total of 16 times, made it to the Final Four on four occasions, and played in the championship game in 1951 when it bowed to mighty Kentucky (68-58) in Minneapolis.
With respect to an all-time series between these two squads, this is the fourth meeting overall and the first since 1994. The Wildcats have an unblemished record versus La Salle, with one of those three victories coming in a 66-53 decision on St. Patrick's Day in 1988 during the NCAA Tournament as well.
The winner of this contest heads to the third round on Sunday to do battle with the survivor of the Ole Miss/Wisconsin matchup.
Going up against Boise State for the first time on Wednesday night, the Explorers were sparked by reserve Tyrone Garland and his 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the floor as he was one of four players in double figures for the program. Ramon Galloway chipped in with another 21 points and Sam Mills accounted for 15, as he sank all but one of his six 3-point attempts in the contest. Jerrell Wright (13 points) was responsible for a team-best six rebounds as the team cleared a mere 22 boards on the night, mainly because they shot an outstanding 63.3 percent from the floor.
Now after 31 games, Galloway continues to lead the Explorers in scoring with 17.1 ppg, thanks in large part to his 40.5 percent accuracy from beyond the arc. As a group, La Salle is averaging close to eight triples per game (239- of-636), yet the perimeter defense for the program has allowed opponents to make good on a total of just 129 3-point shots.
A candidate for the Naismith Player of the Year Award, the Wildcats get a lot of their drive from Rodney McGruder who leads the team in scoring with 15.7 ppg and is also first on the unit with close to five and a half rebounds per game. A member of the All-Big 12 First Team, McGruder is averaging more than 33 minutes per game as he shoots 44.7 percent from the floor for a squad that has been beating opponents by an average of almost nine points per game. Angel Rodriguez, named to both the All-Big 12 Second Team and the All-Big 12 Defensive Team, has scored in double figures in 13 consecutive games in order to boost his overall average to 11.7 ppg, to go along with 5.3 apg which is one of the top marks in the league.
Outside of McGruder and Rodriquez, the latter shooting only 36.7 percent from the field in his 32 appearances, the Wildcats don't have another standout performer who can carry this team on his back. Instead, K-State has a wealth of complementary performers who are more than willing to fill a specific role to keep this team moving forward.