KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There was a moment during the consolation game of the Hall of Fame Classic on Tuesday when it looked like Kansas State was poised to pull off a signature victory against No. 14 Illinois.
K-State center Kaosi Ezeagu threw down a dunk that gave the Wildcats a lead at the beginning of the second half, and T-Mobile Center sounded an awful lot like Bramlage Coliseum.
But K-State was unable to sustain that momentum and ended up losing, 72-64. It was the team’s second narrow defeat against a ranked opponent in the past two days.
The Wildcats led 37-34 when Ezeagu fired up the crowd with his dunk. They continued to hold the lead in a back-and-forth game when Ismael Massoud drained a 3-pointer a few minutes later. But Illinois pulled away by scoring nine straight points.
Things were no longer close afterward.
Brad Underwood, the man who formerly played and coached for the Wildcats, got to celebrate a win against his alma mater. Bruce Weber lost an emotional game against his former employer.
Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn led the way for the Illini with an efficient performance that featured 23 points on 10 shots. But it was Alfonso Plummer who also came up big with 21 points. He had a fantastic shooting effort that saw him make seven 3-pointers.
Markquis Nowell led K-State with a strong individual performance. He scored a team-high 19 points and also managed to grab six rebounds. His energy was a problem for Illinois (3-2). Nijel Pack had strong games for K-State and finished with 15 points, but the Wildcats needed more.
K-State (2-2) will head home without a victory at this tournament. It will next play North Dakota on Sunday in Manhattan.
Here are some thoughts on K-State’s second loss of the season:
Wildcats a work in progress after four games
It’s hard to know exactly what to think about the K-State men’s basketball team after its first four games.
The Wildcats clearly look improved compared to last year, when they sputtered to just nine victories. They wouldn’t have won their first two home games by double digits or competed against strong opponents like Arkansas and Illinois in Kansas City if they were a bad team.
But they still have steps to take before they realistically expect to climb up the Big 12 standings or challenge for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
K-State entered this season with higher expectations than most may think. The Wildcats can still achieve them if they can build off the positives they have shown thus far. There is no shame to losing games to Arkansas and Illinois on a neutral court. And they have lots of games in front of them. But their early results have been the definition of average.
All of K-State’s main contributors have flashed potential, but few of them have been consistent from one game to the next. Senior guard Mike McGuirl was a no-show in the first two games. Selton Miguel went scoreless against Illinois.
Evening out those efforts will likely dictate how the rest of the season goes.
K-State was no match for Kofi Cockburn
Illinois had a big advantage inside when it got the ball to Cockburn.
K-State centers Davion Bradford and Ezeagu encountered foul trouble while trying defend the 7-foot star center, which led to freshman forward Logan Landers spending 10 important minutes on the floor.
Landers is a skilled offensive player who can move up and down the court much faster than K-State’s other centers. But he has a long way to go on defense, and it showed whenever he matched up against Cockburn.
Illinois outscored the Wildcats by 12 when he was on the court. That was a major difference in the game.
Weber probably would have been better served keeping Ezeagu and Bradford on the floor despite foul trouble. In any case, the Wildcats will need a better plan against skilled post players in future games.
Markquis Nowell a spark plug for K-State
The Arkansas-Little Rock transfer did a little bit of everything for the Wildcats.
He scored a team-high 19 points on 15 shots, he grabbed six rebounds and he got his teammates involved with lots of nice passes and energetic play.
Weber has noted that when Nowell and Pack are both playing well in the same lineup, K-State is difficult to defend. That was apparent in this game, as Pack had 15 points.
Nowell is loaded with talent and can help K-State in most games. He just needs to learn to play under control in Weber’s system. He showed improvement in that area on Tuesday and only committed one turnover.
The Wildcats were under control all night on offense and only lost three turnovers as a team. That helped them challenge Illinois until the final moments.