By. Luke Lazarczyk
The Wildcats have an opportunity to grow without their star center.
The day before the Sunflower Showdown, K-State Athletics announced center Ayoka Lee would be out for around four weeks with an ankle injury. The historic season seemingly spiraled down from a top 10 ranking to just another solid season, but think again.
As Lee’s average 20 points, eight rebounds and three blocks a game left the court, the Wildcats still took care of their in-state neighbor with a 69-58 victory. K-State followed this up with a 13-point comeback victory against the No. 13 Baylor Bears in their new Foster Pavilion Arena.
These victories likely would have taken place with the All-American center on the court. In fact, they would have likely been much less stressful for fans to watch. Still, this small stretch of games allows the Wildcats to blossom into more than just a one-woman army and her supporting cast. New opportunities are revealing themselves to allow this season to be more than just a one-off, thanks ironically, to Lee’s injury.
Serena Sundell: The second star?
Sundell already showed promise last year and this year as a junior. As the team’s second-leading scorer, leader in assists and key contributor both rebounding and defensively, Sundell had become a swiss-army knife for head coach Jeff Mittie’s team. Now, that has been proven even more so.
With a 15.5-5.5-5-3.5-2 statline, Sundell’s two-game pace stands alone. Not a single player in college basketball is near that average. The closest comparison is UCONN star Paige Bueckers’ statline of 20.1-4.6-3.9-2.3-1.1 per game. Keeping up a 15-5-5 pace with over three steals and two blocks per game without Lee would be quite the task, but it shows Sundell’s impact in such a short time.
The Maryville, Missouri, native through two games displayed the potential to dominate in all aspects on the court. This can both elevate Lee once she returns and provide a bright future once Lee moves on to the professional ranks.
Winning an NCAA championship in women’s college basketball with just one star seems nearly impossible. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who the Wildcats have a 2-1 record against in two years, played at an atmospheric level last season, carrying her team to a prolific March Madness run. Once her Hawkeyes went head-to-head with the stacked LSU Tigers in the title game, there was little she could do.
K-State already has their main star, Lee, and a great assortment of role players. A second star in Sundell could be the boost the Wildcats need to contend in March and into early April.
Gabby Gregrory’s reemergence
It was always guard Gabby Gregory’s plan to play alongside Lee. Because of Lee’s injury last season, the Oklahoma transfer had to wait to play with the All-American, averaging over 18 points and five rebounds a game for the 2022-23 season. Now, with a full roster including her desired running mate, Gregory’s role shifted.
Gregory is third on the team with nine points per game, while her assists have risen from two to 3.6 per game. With more of a secondary role, Gregory’s efficiency is not nearly where it was last season. The Baylor game may have reawakened the scorer in Gregory.
Gregory added 16 points to the scoreboard in the winning effort, including a post-up layup cutting the deficit to one point with under two minutes left. Her greatest scoring impact wasn’t that key layup but actually keeping the Wildcats in the game when everything seemed lost.
K-State faced its greatest deficit of 13 with two minutes left in the second quarter. Gregory responded by knocking down a 3-pointer. Later, down by 12, Gregory ended the half with another long ball, ending the half at a 39-30 score. Without that second quarter burst, the Wildcats likely would have fallen for the first time in Big 12 play.
Gregory most likely won’t be the leading scorer even in Lee’s absence as Sundell may take the reins. Nevertheless, a more aggressive and efficient Gregory is needed for a long tournament run come March.
Eliza Maupin’s emergence and interior assistance
Forward Eliza Maupin had quite the eventful Monday evening in Waco, Texas. Besides knocking down her first 3-pointer to take a 50-49 lead, Maupin was a force all night. The sophomore scored 16 points on perfect 6/6 shooting with the guards dishing off easy layups. Maupin was not just a factor offensively as she grabbed nine rebounds and stalled Baylor’s efficiency in the paint. Her breakout performance was crucial for the win.
Maupin’s athleticism at 6-foot-3 adds another element to the Wildcats, with or without Lee. With Lee, Maupin is another player to provide a boost when Lee takes a break. Without Lee, Maupin can become the focal point down low to receive easy scoring opportunities and hinder opposing offenses from constantly attacking the rim.
Alongside Maupin, forwards Gisela Sanchez and Imani Lester both bring needed height to the guard-filled roster. Consistency will be essential for the trio to fill Lee’s shoes. While they greatly differ from Lee, they provide a mix of shooting, athleticism, rebounding and passing that could flourish with a cast of talented guards.
If K-State Athletics’ announcement holds true, the Wildcats will play six or seven more games without their center. In that time, K-State will rematch No. 10 Texas, who the Wildcats narrowly defeated, and may go up against No. 24 West Virginia if the number goes to seven. So what needs to be accomplished in that time?
K-State must win as many games as possible, keeping the undefeated Big 12 leader near the top of the rankings with a strong resume. Staying at the top could allow for a higher seed and an easier path once March Madness begins.
Secondly, K-State must see improvement from everyone. Clearly, the team is not the same talent-wise or statistically without Lee. Still, it doesn’t mean K-State should be drastically different. Everyone on the roster has the chance and ability to prove themselves and grow as better players during this time.
Sundell and Gregory can become dominant players on certain nights. Maupin, Sanchez and Lester can find a role down low. Brylee and Jaelyn Glenn can expand from defensive stouts to more reliable scores, with guards Zyanna Walker and Taryn Sides becoming even more effective from the outside.
Once the All-American returns, the Wildcats could become an even greater nightmare to all, with dangerous weapons surrounding the anchor-near-the-basket wreaking havoc.
Simply put, Lee’s time away can forge the No. 4-ranked Kansas State Wildcats into the last team standing in Cleveland as the confetti falls.