KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A strange mixture of emotions filled Kansas State’s locker room following the Wildcats’ early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Some players sulked after La Salle handed them a 63-61 defeat in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Others appeared angry and tried to figure out how a successful regular season didn’t translate into a postseason run.
Did a dreadful start that led to a 19-point deficit do them in, or was it horrible execution after they took a second-half lead?
“You can’t spot a team that many points,” junior guard Shane Southwell said.
“It was there,” added senior guard Martavious Irving. “We had it. All we had to do was just go finish plays and make layups and hit free throws.”
Bruce Weber landed in the middle. The first-year coach blamed himself for not properly motivating his team and mishandling timeouts in the final moments. He tried to call one as Angel Rodriguez started driving to the baseline and ultimately missed a prayer on the game’s final possession, but there were only about two seconds remaining and the officials didn’t grant him one.
Weber’s voice cracked as he talked about how disappointing the loss was, and how much he appreciated K-State’s three seniors — Rodney McGruder, Jordan Henriquez and Irving — and what they had given the program. They left a legacy, he said, by winning 101 games together and sharing the Big 12 championship with Kansas.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” Weber said. “I just wish it could have gone another day.”
Still, when he was asked to evaluate the season as a whole, he found something positive to talk about.
“Hopefully it’s just the start,” Weber said. “We have some good pieces and hopefully those guys will take it another step.”
It will be interesting to see where K-State basketball goes from here.
Weber proved himself a year after being fired at Illinois by winning a record 27 regular season games and claiming a share of the school’s first conference championship since 1977, but three losses to the Jayhawks and a setback in the round of 64 will not sit well with fans.
Shane Southwell, Will Spradling and Rodriguez return as starters, and Thomas Gipson is ready to step into a starting role, so the Wildcats have a nice nucleus to build around. But they will lack proven depth inside without Henriquez and the will miss McGruder, an elite swingman who finished in the top 10 of K-State’s record book in career points and rebounds.
The Wildcats could get help from four incoming recruits, but none are highly rated. Shooting guard Marcus Foster, a strong outside shooter who seems ready to play right away, could make an impact, and small forward Wesley Iwundu has potential as a slasher. But Jevon Thomas won’t be able to practice or play until the fall semester ends and forward Neville Fincher may need time to mature.
Weber said his top priority will be working with his returning players, particularly Spradling and Rodriguez, who fought through injuries at the end of the season.
He thinks Spradling can become a consistent threat from three-point range if he develops his lower body, and believes Rodriguez can break Steve Henson’s single-season assists record. Southwell and Gipson both had their moments this year. Their challenge will be finding consistency.
The regular season showed what they are capable of. A NCAA Tournament loss will provide motivation.
“This young group, they want to take another step,” Weber said. “You become a player in the summer. You’ve got to work at it. We’ve got to get Will healthy, we’ve got to get Angel healthy and get after it.”