'We all believe that we can beat them': Kansas State basketball poised for Arkansas test

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal
Omaha guard Marco Smith, right, tries to steal the ball from Kansas State's Ismael Massoud (25) during last Wednesday's game in Manhattan. K-State will face Arkansas at 8 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bruce Weber isn't about to define his Kansas State basketball team's season by the next two days in the Hall of Fame Classic.

It's too early for that.

But how the Wildcats perform against some top-flight competition at T-Mobile Center, starting with Arkansas at 8 p.m. Monday, certainly should shed some light on where they stand four games in.

The Wildcats face No. 15-ranked Arkansas in the late game, after No. 10 Illinois and Cincinnati square off at 5:30. The consolation game Tuesday starts at 6 p.m., followed by the championship at 8:30.

"It's a great opportunity for our guys," Weber said Wednesday after his Wildcats improved to 2-0 with a 79-64 home victory against Omaha. "That's why they come here."

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Arkansas is 3-0 after beating Northern Iowa, 93-80, last Wednesday. K-State led Omaha by as many as 26 points in the second half before fading down the stretch.

While the Wildcats showed improvement over their opening 67-57 victory over Florida A&M, Arkansas clearly takes the competition level up a notch.

"This tournament's not going to make or break our season, but it's a great opportunity for us to show that we got a lot better from last year," said K-State sophomore forward Ismael Massoud, a transfer from Wake Forest who is averaging 10 points a game after scoring 15 Wednesday against Omaha. "It's a top 25 team and these are the types of games you should live for, to go play against what are considered the best teams and show that you belong."

While Massoud wasn't around for last year's disappointing 9-20 season, sophomore guard Nijel Pack was. He has picked up where he left off last season, averaging 16.5 points in the first two games and is eager to see how far the Wildcats have come.

"I know it's still early in the season," he said after scoring 15 points against in the Omaha, following an 18-point effort against Florida A&M. "It felt good to get a second W under our belts. Completely opposite of what we had last year, which is good for our confidence going into this tournament in KC this weekend."

K-State opened last season with two straight losses to Drake and Colorado. The Wildcats also needed a 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds to get by Omaha last year.

"Going into this 2-0 is really good for us," Pack said. "We're thinking about being 3-0 next, though.

"We know we've got tough competition (and) a tough team in Arkansas, but we all believe that we can beat them. We've just got to put the work in, put the effort behind it."

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That was Weber's message to his team after the Omaha game.

"One of our big emphasis this week, 'I don't rise up for the big game. I rely on my training, my preparation and daily discipline, habits, execution.' That's what we've got to do now the next three days," he said. "We can't kill them (in practice), because we've got two games in 24 hours, but what we do, they have to be very, very focused."

Arkansas presents some challenging matchups for the Wildcats with 7-foot-3 center Connor Vanover, who has averaged 10.5 points in two games, and 6-10 forward Jaylin Williams who leads the team with 5.7 assists and 7.3 rebounds off the bench. Guard JD Notae leads the Razorbacks in scoring with a 21.7-point average and 5-7 reserve guard Chris Lykes adds 15.7.

Weber said the early tests against Arkansas and either Illinois (2-1) or Cincinnati (4-0) is why he scheduled a preseason scrimmage with Oregon, rather than a second exhibition game.

"We wanted a high-level team," he said. "We were ready for them and I thought we played at a high level.

"Great opportunity for our guys, playing in Kansas City. Great arena (and) good teams. (We'll) see what we're about, but it's not going to be the end of the season. There's a long way to go, whether you have success or don't, a long way to go."