MANHATTAN — When point guard Kamau Stokes went down with an injury in early January, three games into the Big 12 season, it easily could have sent the Wildcats on a downward spiral.
Instead, they discovered a hidden gem in redshirt freshman Cartier Diarra.
Though Diarra didn't turn the Wildcats into Big 12 championship contenders, he more than held his own until Stokes returned in a limited capacity a month later, and was a key factor in their NCAA Tournament run to the Elite Eight.
But the true benefit of Diarra's emergence should come this year for No. 12-ranked K-State, which debuts at 7 p.m. Friday with an exhibition game against Pittsburg State at Bramlage Coliseum.
Not only is Stokes back and healthy for his senior season, but Diarra is right there with him, creating an interesting dilemma for K-State coach Bruce Weber. Or does it?
"I think it just makes us more versatile," Diarra, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound sophomore from Florence, S.C., said of the point guard competition. "We're not the ones that decide the minutes we play and we don't focus on that.
"It's more using the minutes that we have. Whatever minutes you go out there, make it valuable, make it important, make it effective."
That was precisely what Weber told the two veterans and K-State's entire stable of perimeter players during the offseason, citing last year's national champion Villanova as an example.
"(Jalen) Brunson was the national player of the year and he averaged 32 minutes," Weber said. "The sixth man (Donte DiVincenzo) got drafted and he was in 27, 28 minutes a game.
"So I showed them, it's not just how many minutes they get, (but) what they do with their minutes."
Stokes, a four-year starter, suffered his foot injury on Jan. 6 at Texas Tech and missed the next seven games. Though he returned for a Feb. 3 loss at West Virginia, he was never at full strength.
"You've got to give the kid credit, when he played in the NCAA Tournament," Weber said of Stokes. "Because he was probably 60, 65 percent, and we didn't realize even until after the season where he was, but he wanted to be part of it and he helped us do something special."
Stokes, a 6-foot, 170-pounder from Baltimore, started 20 of the first 21 games his freshman year before suffering a season-ending injury. As a sophomore, he averaged career highs of 11.7 points and 4.1 assists per game, while last year he slipped to 9.0 points and 3.4 assists.
But he has pronounced himself "100 percent" fit for his senior year and ready to go.
As for the prospect of splitting time with Diarra at the point, Stokes sees that as a positive.
"Of course we come out here and compete, but more than anything we tell each other we're competing to get better," Stokes said. "Because if I slack off one day, he doesn't get better, and if he slacks off one day, I don't get better.
"We've both got to compete against each other so that we can get better and prepare for anybody in the country. As point guards you develop a sense of brotherhood, because between me and Cartier, we've got a lot of responsibility on the court together."
Diarra, who sat out the 2016-17 season after undergoing knee surgery in July 2016, did not play more than 23 minutes in any game last year before Stokes went down. But from his first start against Oklahoma State to the end of the season, he raised his scoring average nearly three points to 7.1, with 2.0 assists.
Senior forward Dean Wade, the Big 12 preseason player of the year, doesn't see any disadvantage with two talented point guards.
"They bring their own type of basketball to the table," he said. "Kam is real fast, a great passer and Cartier is a great passer (with) high-flying athleticism.
"They're great passers and great leaders, and Cartier is a great defender. It will be interesting to see what happens this year."
Stokes agreed that for all their differences, there are plenty of similarities.
"I'd say we're both dogs. We always want to get at each other, we always want to get at the other player," he said. "I feel that we're just competitive against each other.
"Cartier is more of a slasher — a get-to-the-basket kind of guy — and I'm more of a shooter."
That said, the Wildcats' depth and experience — six returning starters, counting both Stokes and Diarra — give them the versatility to go either big or small. In a smaller lineup, the two point guards could well play side-by-side with senior Barry Brown on a wing and 6-5 junior Xavier Sneed sliding to the power forward.
"When we're on the court together, that's really a force to be reckoned with because it's dangerous," Stokes said with a smile. "I'm pretty sure you'll see a lot of it."
PITTSBURG STATE AT K-STATE*
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan
TV/radio: FSKC, WIBW (580)
Next game: vs. Kennesaw State, 7 p.m. Nov. 9, Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan