MANHATTAN — Bramlage Coliseum, obviously, wasn’t big enough for two stars named Marcus on Saturday.
So while Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart spent a frustrating 12 minutes on the bench in foul trouble, Kansas State’s Marcus Foster — a freshman who is just starting to fan some flames around the country — stepped up with a 17-point, eight-rebound, two-assist (though I swear he had more than that) performance.
Kansas State beat the sixth-ranked Cowboys 74-71. True, there were a couple of key Pokes who weren’t able to saddle up — starting center Michael Cobbins and backup point guard Stevie Clark.
But K-State’s ninth win in a row had nothing to do with charity. It had everything to do with grit and grime and a young player who is sprouting stardom before our eyes.
It was the kind of rough-and-tumble game that can make a freshman wish he was back in the hallways of his high school.
But Foster didn’t wilt. Nor did his equally-game teammates, including fellow freshmen Wesley Iwundu and Jevon Thomas.
Foster certainly wasn’t hyped anything like Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, who was anointed by Sports Illustrated before he played his first college game.
That was unfair to Wiggins, who has been good so far for the Jayhawks, but not the second coming of Wilt Chamberlain or Danny Manning.
Foster, meanwhile, was a three-star recruit, albeit one who was the Texas Class 3A high school player of the year at Hirschi High in Wichita Falls, where he averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds as a senior.
The 6-foot-2 Foster reminds me a little bit of Mitch Richmond, a little bit of Jacob Pullen, a little bit of Willie Murrell — all K-State icons.
Foster has played 14 games in college. So, yeah, maybe I should pump the breaks. But this is an exciting young player who has a variety of skills.
His best play Saturday was a pass to a wide-open Thomas Gipson, who cut to the basket after a pick and took a perfect bounce pass from Foster for one of the game’s few easy baskets and one that pulled Kansas State to within 60-59 with 6:17 to play.
Foster’s eight rebounds were a season high and even in a high-intensity Big 12 battle, he was as focused and calm as anyone could have expected.
“I just want to be able to play defense, help my teammates when they need help, and score the ball,” Foster said. “That’s what I’m good at. You just can’t get yourself uptight even though we were playing the No. 6 team in the nation. So I tried to just calm my nerves and I got out there and played.”
Foster’s rise is apt for a K-State team that has come from nowhere after a season-opening loss to Northern Colorado caused many to stop paying attention in early November.
Lopsided defeats to Charlotte and Georgetown in Puerto Rico didn’t help. But when the Wildcats upset Gonzaga at Intrust Bank Arena on Dec. 21, it was a drumbeat nobody could ignore.
The Cats followed up with a drubbing of Tulane in New York and a 17-point win over a one-loss George Washington team.
K-State couldn’t have started conference play with more confidence. And having watched this team grow over the past several weeks, it’s not a surprise the Wildcats were able to beat Oklahoma State.
Now, though, it becomes a matter of following up.
K-State has its first true road game Tuesday night at TCU, then plays at Kansas next Saturday.
Is this young team ready to go into Allen Fieldhouse and pull an upset? Probably not. But if the Wildcats lose focus and slip up against the Horned Frogs, a two-game losing streak looms.
That’s the kind of lapse coach Bruce Weber wants to avoid. And that’s where he counts on veterans like Gipson, Shane Southwell and Will Spradling to set an example.
No matter how much the upperclassmen lead, though, it’s undeniable that Foster is the Wildcats’ most dynamic force.
He can shoot the three, get to the free-throw line, handle the basketball and even post up some. He’s at his best now as a slasher, but his overall skill set is refined for such an inexperienced player.
Foster is also a strong defensive player. And his passing is starting to become a focus.
“That was a huge pass he made to (Gipson) during a gut-check part of the game,” Weber said. “And it’s probably a pass he wouldn’t have made earlier in the season.”
It looked several times like Oklahoma State was on the verge of building a lead. But whenever the Cowboys would go ahead by three, four or five points, K-State answered with a run. And often it was Foster doing most of the running.
“He’s been so focused since he got here on campus,” Weber said. “He’s in the gym as much as anybody on the team, if not the most. He’s worked at his game and he wants to get better. He just quietly does his thing. He’s focused and mature for a freshman and that’s why he’s having the success he’s having.”
Foster is far from a finished product, and that’s what makes watching him so enjoyable. His improvement is noticeable from game to game. Maybe even half to half.
He’s something special. Now let’s see how special he can be.