LAS VEGAS — It's all about the matchups to Bob Huggins. Facing an athletic Southern California team, Huggins befuddled the Trojans by using a small lineup and spreading the floor in Friday night's 68-55 victory in the semifinals of Las Vegas Classic at the Orleans Arena.
The Wildcats' starting lineup put 6-foot-7 Cartier Martin and 6-foot-5 David Hoskins on much taller USC post players. Both 6-foot-11 Abdoulaye N'Diaye and 6-foot-9 Taj Gibson had fouled out of the contest midway through the second half as K-State went small with great effect.
Martin, Hoskins and hyper-athletic freshman Bill Walker gave the Wildcats a trio the Trojans could not solve.
"We felt coming in that if they were going to start the two bigs, these three guys would give us an advantage," Huggins said.
K-State didn't play any of its centers in the game, including 7-foot-3 freshman Jason Bennett, who missed both of the team's Wednesday practices while attending his grandmother's funeral in Florida.
"Jason is going to be a really big part of our team, but he had virtually no preparation and once the game got spread … the game wasn't conducive to him being out there," Huggins said.
The gameplan's effectiveness was reflected in the game's final stats. Hoskins led the Wildcats with 19 points, six rebounds and four steals.
"Dave played really well because Taj Gibson comes in averaging 10 rebounds a game and we kept telling him he couldn't let him get too deep on you and Dave was really strong with the ball," Huggins said.
Walker added 19 points, 15 of which came in the second half. Martin added nine points, hitting the Wildcats' only 3-pointer of the game. It was easy to focus on Walker's performance because he took control of the game early in the final 20 minutes and scored seven of his points on eight free throw attempts in the second half.
"We were just taking advantage of the mismatches they gave us. Cartier stepped up and hit some big shots and Dave made some big ones, too. It's a team game," Walker said. "These two guys (Martin and Walker) stepped up and wouldn't let us lose. We were down five (at halftime) and we were playing horribly, but we stepped up."
Now the Wildcats, 9-3, will need another dose of stepping up as they get a chance to measure their season's progress when they meet the New Mexico Lobos in the Las Vegas Classic's championship game. The game tips off at 9:30 (Central). New Mexico stunned eighth-ranked Wichita State, 71-68, on Friday night. The Lobos hammered the Wildcats, 78-54, on Nov. 21 in Albuquerque.
Of course, K-State played that game without Walker and Hoskins saw limited action in that contest, too.
"K-State is a completely different team now," New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay said after his team moved to 9-2 on the season. "They played that game without Billy Walker. … He can do it all: Pass, shoot, defend, rebound. Talk about a guy who walks with confidence. He knows he can do it all."
K-State's small lineup against the Trojans also grabbed McKay's attention.
"It will be a different team. They don't even play big anymore. They're going to their five guards now," McKay said.
Of course, it's hard to tell if Huggins will attack the Lobos with the smaller lineup or go back to Bennett and the other post players. "It's the game within the game," Huggins said of such preparation decisions.
The Lobos' upset win over the Shockers spoiled a possible all-Kansas final, but the opponent was never important for the Wildcats. It would have been nice to have had played WSU, but Walker said he is looking at the season's big picture.
"I don't care who we play. I just want to win this tournament," Walker said. "I want to get two wins here and get rolling into conference play and make something special out of this season. I want to be the first (K-State team) to make it to the (NCAA) tournament since '96. I'm pretty sure Cartier wants to go out on a high note."
To that Martin answered from across the room: "You're right about that."
"Whatever I can help him do that, I want to do," Walker added.