MANHATTAN, KS - JANUARY 10:  Ayoka Lee #50 of the Kansas State Wildcats huddles with her teammates after scoring a basket in the second half against the Oklahoma Sooners at Bramlage Coliseum on January 10, 2024 in Manhattan, Kansas. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

Ayoka Lee of Kansas State huddles with her teammates after scoring a basket in the second half against the Oklahoma Sooners at Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 10, 2024, in Manhattan, Kansas. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

After a solid showing in 2021-22, last season should have been Kansas State’s year. The Wildcats had a core of sophomore guards that started throughout their freshman season, earning valuable experience around star center Ayoka Lee.

But their 2022-23 campaign was over before it began as Lee injured her knee in August 2022 and required season-ending surgery. She came back in a big way this year, and the Wildcats started their season with an upset over No. 2 Iowa, with Lee posting 32 points and 10 rebounds.

From there, Kansas State rattled off victories, winning 18 of their next 19 games and rising to No. 2 in the AP Poll. Then, during a 61-58 win over No. 10 Texas on Jan. 13, Lee was injured again. She missed a month of action after an ankle surgery, but this time, Kansas State was able to do what it couldn’t without her in the previous season: win.

The Wildcats went 5-2 without Lee (including one forfeit win against TCU), with four different leading scorers in that span. Now, Lee is back, but not at 100%. Yet even with ankle injuries limiting her, Lee has managed to hold Kansas State together. In an overtime win over West Virginia on Wednesday, Lee finished with 34 points and 12 rebounds.

The 6-foot-6 center has been a force since arriving at Kansas State, averaging a near double-double for her career, with 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest. But if Kansas State wants to continue its success into the postseason, the Wildcats will need to continue playing with the balance they found in Lee’s absence.

Lee will always be at the center of Kansas State’s offense, and for good reason. The senior is a prolific scorer who holds the NCAA scoring record for most points in a game after dropping 61 against Oklahoma in January 2022.

She’s a true post who uses her size, strength and footwork to score in the paint. Kansas State likes to pass over the top to Lee, trusting her to catch the ball even with multiple defenders on her.

Lee has a high usage rate, at 29.8%, but she makes the most of it, shooting 65.1% from the field (12th in the NCAA).

The center’s ability to seal creates lanes for her teammates to drive inside, which helps create offense for Kansas State’s guards.

Leading the way is point guard Serena Sundell, the only other double-digit scorer for the Wildcats. She’s averaging 11.9 points per game, a number that rose closer to 15 during Lee’s absence.

Sundell is also the best 3-point shooter on the team, making 37.5% of her attempts.

Gabby Gregory (9.3 points per game), Zyanna Walker (7.8) and Jaelyn Glenn (7.2) are all capable of scoring on the drive, with Gregory excelling in the post against smaller guards. But the major issue for Kansas State is its lack of 3-point shooting.

Teams are able to double and send multiple help defenders at Lee because, outside of Sundell, the Wildcats don’t knock down 3-pointers. Lee only averages 0.7 assists per game because of that. Teams know if she catches the ball, it’s likely not leaving the paint.

As a team, Kansas State shoots 30.3% from beyond the arc, and after Sundell, only Glenn makes over 30% of her attempts (33%).

The good thing for Kansas State is that Lee rarely needs to pass the ball out, as she averages 1.25 points per game (the second-best mark in the NCAA). The center makes up for a lot on offense, and as a team, the Wildcats mask any weaknesses on defense.

The Wildcats hold their opponents to 56 points per game, and just 35% shooting. With lengthy guards — Sundell, Gregory and Brylee Glenn all stand over 6-foot — Kansas State can disrupt shooters. That, coupled with a shot-blocker and rebounder like Lee in the paint makes Kansas State a challenging matchup for any offense.

If Lee can get healthy, and the Wildcat guards continue to refine their games, Kansas State may get the season they’ve been hoping for since 2022.

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