MANHATTAN — Forget high-flying dunks and wide-open jumpers. Passes seemed hard.
That was the realization Kansas State players came to following disheartening losses to Michigan and Gonzaga at the beginning of the season.
The Wildcats were facing an uphill battle. They entered a November game against Michigan at Madison Square Garden still adapting to first-year coach Bruce Weber’s motion offense, and it showed. They scored 24 points in the first half and lost 71-54.
“We didn’t really know how to get open or how to work late in the shot clock out of our offense,” junior guard Will Spradling said afterward. “You can tell that our offense is struggling.”
Three weeks later, K-State traveled to Seattle to take on Gonzaga and didn’t perform any better. It mustered 26 points in the first half and lost 68-52.
Both games were barely competitive past halftime. The Wolverines swarmed to the ball and cut off passing lanes. The Bulldogs dominated inside and hounded Rodney McGruder into a miserable four-point effort. Everything was contested. Nothing came easy, not even passes around the perimeter.
“We were so bad,” junior guard Shane Southwell says now. “It’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come, especially on offense. It felt like we had no idea what we were doing. Now anybody on the team can step up and score.”
Indeed, K-State has experienced quite a transformation.
The Wildcats hardly seemed surprised about those early losses. They had only been working with first-year coach Bruce Weber for a few months, while the teams they were going up against were ranked in the top 15. Players hoped for the best, but expected the worse.
Weber worried he was in for a long season. Fast forward to March, and those same players were furious about letting an outright conference championship slip away following a 76-70 loss at Oklahoma State and Weber was frustrated about a sub-par performance in the title game of the Big 12 Tournament.
By winning 27 games, Weber became the most successful first-year coach in program history, and K-State tied for its first conference championship since 1977. It is now preparing to play in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed.
“They made a big improvement,” assistant coach Chester Frazier said. “They started doing what we were asking of them offensively. I have seen growth from all the guys individually, but as a team we have also grown.
“We know it takes time. We were competitive in the first half against Michigan and Gonzaga, we just couldn’t make shots. Defensively, though, we were right there. We weren’t overly frustrated. As you can see, we didn’t panic. Every time we lost a game we came back and won a few in a row.”
The Wildcats started to prove what they were made of in their final nonconference games. Three days after losing to Gonzaga, the offense started clicking during a 78-69 win over Texas Southern. McGruder scored 26 points, Southwell switched positions and moved into the starting lineup as a hybrid power forward and the Wildcats made 31 shots on 21 assists.
Later that week, everything came together for K-State during a 67-61 victory over then-No. 8 Florida in Kansas City, Mo. Spradling scored 17 points, McGruder added 13, Jordan Henriquez had nine points, six rebounds and five blocks and the Wildcats finally had a big win on their resume.
Sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez went on to average more than 11 points and five assists while cutting down on the mistakes that plagued him as a freshman. Southwell led K-State to a win at West Virginia and scored 19 points in a loss to Kansas. McGruder (15.7 points) became one of the top scorers in the Big 12. And someone was always ready to come off the bench and contribute.
K-State went on to average 70.1 points in conference and lead the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing 60.4 points.
Those losses to Michigan and Gonzaga couldn’t seem further away.
“We became a totally different team,” Weber said. “We are scoring the ball better and our confidence level is high. When we play good team defense we can beat anybody in the country. I think we have shown that.”