If college basketball had the same assistant-coaching titles and endless studio analysis as the NFL, the men in suits would be tripping all over each other talking about defensive guru Chris Lowery of Kansas State.
And they would have no shortage of material. K-State head coach Bruce Weber, who has the Wildcats playing much more fluid offense than they did under intense motivator Frank Martin, has done his best work during his career when Lowery has handled the defensive end of the floor.
Last season was the third school at which Lowery has served as an assistant to Weber (Southern Illinois, Illinois, Kansas State), whom he left to head Southern Illinois for eight seasons.
Quietly, with Weber juggling head-coach and offensive-coordinator duties and Lowery equating to defensive coordinator, the tandem has put together quite a streak, one that faces tall odds this season.
They have won at least a share of a regular-season conference title in each of the past four seasons they have worked together and accomplished it in different conferences. They won outright Missouri Valley Conference titles in 2002 and 2003, an outright Big Ten title in 2004 and shared the Big 12 title with Kansas in 2013.
With two freshmen in the starting lineup and two more in the rotation, this figured to be a long season for the ’Cats. Nothing that happened in the early portion of the nonconference schedule changed that perception.
They suffered single-digit losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte and took a 27-point beating at the hands of Georgetown.
They bounced off the canvas impressively, to say the least. K-State takes a 10-game winning streak and No. 25 Associated Press ranking into Allen Fieldhouse for today’s 1 p.m. tipoff.
Defense has been responsible for much of the revival.
K-State’s D is ranked fifth in the nation in three-point percentage (25.1 percent), ninth in scoring (58.0).
Lowery’s defense held Oklahoma State to 15 points under its scoring average and 21.4 percent three-point shooting. Last season’s SEC scoring champ, Ole Miss’ eccentric guard Marshall Henderson, was held to 4-of-18 shooting and scored 13 points in a 61-58 loss to K-State in Manhattan.
Speaking of 61-58, Lowery was on the wrong end of that score against Kansas in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament in 2007. KU turned it over 19 times and made just one of six three-pointers, but was able to advance, thanks to 10 layups and four dunks, the risky side of applying so much defensive pressure.
“They really, really got after you, and their ball-screen defense was the best I had ever seen,” KU coach Bill Self said of Lowery’s Salukis. “They almost scared you when they set a ball screen. ... And their close‑outs were unbelievable. I’d say close‑outs and ball-screen defense was what I remember most about that Sweet 16 team because they did those two things as well as any team I had ever seen.”
That Southern Illinois team was more experienced than this K-State team.
“There’s no question K‑State is playing at a very high level defensively,” Self said. “I would be interested to see what Chris (Lowery) thinks about comparing the two because I’m not there every day, so I don’t know. But right now they’ve got them playing defensively about as well as anybody in the country.”
Well, is this K-State team as good defensively as the Salukis that KU faced in March 2007?
“I don’t think so because of all the little nuances that veterans like that team had to know,” Lowery said Friday night. “A lot of us playing good defense now is just our athleticism and playing really hard. As we continue to improve, we’ll get there, but we’re not there with that team right now.”
Lowery described the key to good defense as “being able to take them out of their stuff. But when you take them out of their stuff, you better be able to guard them one on one, mano a mano.”
That’s when KU freshman Andrew Wiggins becomes most dangerous, which gives Kansas two ways to win, the first being running its offense to completion and getting the ball inside for high-percentage shots, the safest path to victory. When that fails tends to be when Wiggins scores a lot of points, never an easy chore against a Weber/Lowery-coached team.