MANHATTAN — Bruce Weber hasn’t coached basketball at Kansas State long enough to learn every detail of the program’s history, but he can tell you, without hesitation, how long it’s been since the Wildcats won their last conference championship.
He’s constantly reminded.
“The banner is out there,” Weber said earlier this week, pointing to K-State’s practice facility and Bramlage Coliseum. “It’s been since 1977.”
That season, in which Jack Hartman guided the Wildcats to a Big Eight title, has been brought up a lot lately. A three-game winning streak by K-State, combined with a week of unexpected scores across the Big 12, has put the Wildcats within reach of another banner-worthy accomplishment.
No. 13 K-State is tied with No. 5 Kansas atop the Big 12 standings at 7-2. The league race is wide open with No. 22 Oklahoma State and Iowa State lurking one game back, but the Wildcats control their own destiny at the midway point of the conference season.
That’s not a scenario they could have predicted two weeks, ago when they lost consecutive games to Kansas and Iowa State. Yet here they are.
“It’s something we have talked about, having high goals and dreams and taking advantage of opportunities,” Weber said. “It has kind of been our theme all year. I have given them little goals along the way. One of them was what happened. Now we have to take advantage.”
It won’t be easy. In order to stay on top of the Big 12, K-State must do what it was unable to the last time it shared a first-place tie with the Jayhawks — beat Iowa State and Kansas. The Wildcats could have moved into first all by themselves with a victory over Kansas last month at home, but they missed too many three-pointers and fell short 59-55. A few days later, they dropped further down the standings when Iowa State out-muscled them for a 73-67 victory at Hilton Coliseum.
They will get another shot at both soon, with Iowa State coming to Bramlage Coliseum at 5 p.m. Saturday and K-State heading to Kansas two days later.
“We deserve the spot we are in,” senior wing Rodney McGruder said. “We just have to go out and prove it.”
Following a sluggish win at Texas Tech, Weber referred to Iowa State and Kansas as “the best two teams in the league.” Both have won three in a row against the Wildcats.
Most years, players would use revenge as motivation. This season, there is more at stake.
“It’s a lot more fun when you are fighting for a title instead of a seed,” junior guard Will Spradling said. “We used to just be fighting for the 4 seed or just to get a bye in the Big 12 Tournament. Now we’re fighting for a Big 12 championship and that first seed in the tournament. It gives you a lot more excitement and energy going into games.”
No one knows how K-State players will respond to the pressures of playing for a Big 12 championship. Some teams can’t handle the spotlight. Others thrive with added incentive.
One thing is for sure: After years of trying to claw their way up the standings, the Wildcats are ready to find out how they handle to life on top.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it’s great,” Shane Southwell said. “As individuals it is something you will remember for the rest of your life. Winning a conference championship, besides schools like Kansas and Duke and North Carolina, you can’t really say that. If we won a conference title that would be huge for us, the school, everybody. But things aren’t over. There are a lot of games left.”