MANHATTAN — In order to defend their Big 12 basketball title, the Kansas State Wildcats know full well that "defend" is the operative word.
"That's been our culture," said senior forward Xavier Sneed, one of just two starters back from last year's 25-9 team that shared the Big 12 title with Texas Tech at 14-4. "Bruce Weber's been coaching here forever — defense first. If you want to get in the game, you have to play defense. That's been a key staple for us."
Of course, the most glaring statistic as the Wildcats look to replace senior standouts Barry Brown, Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes is offensive production. Not only did they lose their top three scorers, but 53% of their total points and 58% of their scoring average, if you factor out nine missed games for Wade and two more for Stokes.
But that's where defense comes in.
"One of the (points of) emphasis I put is we have to find ways to steal baskets," said Weber, who begins his eighth season a K-State's coach when the Wildcats open at 8 p.m. Friday with an exhibition game against Emporia State at Bramlage Coliseum. "You can steal baskets off transition, off your defense, and that's going to help when you talk about scoring.
"That's going to be important for us, to get those extra baskets off some of those little plays."
Weber said he would like to speed up the game, as well, in order to bolster the offense.
"I want to push it because I think we've got athleticism," he said. "I think we have willing passers. We should have guys that should be able to get out on the break. It's something our coaches feel is important, but if the players want to do it, they've got to do it. That means conditioning-wise, that means do it every time, not just when they want, and then they've got to take care of the ball.
"Otherwise, we can't. We can't have 30 turnovers. We don't have that old team and that dominant team that we can overcome that."
The Wildcats do have some experience and some proven scorers, but not consistent scorers. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Sneed, who explored the NBA draft over the summer before deciding to return for his senior year, is the only one to average double figures at 10.6 points a game.
Senior forward Makol Mawien added 7.0 points and junior guard Cartier Diarra 6.8 as the sixth man.
The Wildcats will look for all three veterans, as well as junior guard Mike McGuirl (3.6 ppg) to increase their offensive numbers. Guard DaJuan Gordon, a 6-4 freshman from Chicago, put up big numbers in high school and junior college transfer David Sloan led the nation in assists.
"I've been working on getting my percentages up as a shooter, being more of a volume shooter, as well," Sneed said. "And just showing all aspects of my game is going to be a key for me."
That's what Weber is looking for from Sneed, as well.
"Efficiency and consistency," Weber said. "He's had great moments. This is a dude that scored 20-some in the Sweet 16 game against Kentucky (two years ago) in a high-, high-profile game when everyone's watching.
"And he's had his other shining moments. You want those moments, but you've got to have that consistency."
Sneed can help by creating his own opportunities.
"He's got to make his open threes and we've got to help get those threes," Weber said. "But he can steal baskets — go get a put-back or two a game. He's so athletic. Go get a run-out dunk. Scoring a lot of ways. That efficiency and being versatile should be his strength."
Same for Diarra, who filled in capably when Wade was out and the Wildcats went with a smaller lineup.
"One of the NBA guys said (recently), 'Who's going to score for you?' and (Diarra's) got to," Weber said. "He's capable, and to me it's just being consistent.
"He's capable of scoring in a lot of ways, he's just got to learn not to try to go every time and rely on his teammates. Sometimes he's got to create, sometimes it's got to be for others (and) sometimes it's got to be for himself."
The 6-9, 228-pound Mawien, who often deferred to Wade last year, also has shown an ability to score, and his 4.9 rebounds a game trailed only Sneed (5.5) among the returning players.
"He can shoot … and if we can get him to figure out how to get open shots, he'll make them," Weber said. "But the other part of it is, the best game was the last game last year (a 70-64 NCAA first-round loss to UC-Irvine), when he had to, he got a double-double, and that rebounding has got to be there."
Weber said 6-8 junior forward Levi Stockard has been impressive in preseason after averaging 1.8 points and 1.5 rebounds in 32 games last year. Other likely post contributors are 6-9 freshmen Antonio Gordon and Montavious Murphy.
But the one constant will have to be defense. Brown was the Big 12 defensive player of the year, but he had help. Sneed, Mawien and McGuirl all could become defensive stoppers.
"It's been such a big part of who we've been in the past," McGuirl said.
Then there's Sneed.
"Xavier is, if not the best in the league, he's definitely up there," Weber said. "And I'm talking about in the country. And in some ways he's better than Barry.
"Barry was so good on the steals and stuff. Xavier can just lock you down physically. He can guard the point and he's guarded fours (power forwards). One, two, three, four, he can guard all the positions."