AMES, Iowa — You can almost hear what Kansas State coach Bruce Weber is thinking sometimes.
“Next year. Next year we’re going to be really good. Look at these freshmen. They run around and do crazy things now, but just wait. Just wait.”
For now, though, there’s only this season. And Kansas State let another potential road win get away Saturday at Hilton Coliseum because the Wildcats continue to look for the right guy at the right time.
Who takes the big shots for this team? Who leads and who follows?
Marcus Foster is a future star. Point guard Jevon Thomas is so quick and his promise is obvious. Forward Wesley Iwundu is a five-star athlete. Their time will come.
But these freshmen need time. And while Kansas State came close to stealing a couple of Big 12 road wins this week, the Wildcats’ lack of execution and leadership has been obvious.
In a pinch, the Wildcats flinch.
They were so impressive Saturday, rallying from a 12-point halftime deficit to tie the game, 50-50, with 12:21 to play.
Iowa State pushed back and went up 66-55 with 6:38 to play. But a hot shooting streak by Will Spradling, who made three three-pointers in a span of 1:16, helped the Wildcats tie the game again.
But in the last five minutes, K-State’s defense failed as Iowa State scored 15 points. And K-State’s offense was too erratic and sloppy. The Wildcats got into a hurry and the wheels came off.
“Some quick shots, some one-on-one shots,” Weber said. “We were a little impatient. A year from now maybe we can play a little quicker. Right now we’re a little young to put up those quick shots.”
It didn’t help that junior center Thomas Gipson was having an uncharacteristic slow day. Gipson made two baskets, both part of the early second-half K-State comeback, but that was it. Two baskets.
Senior Shane Southwell had 14 points and seven rebounds. But he was the player most guilty of rushing shots. Southwell is a 31-percent three-point shooter; he shouldn’t be taking seven from long range.
Foster led K-State with 20 points. He’s so good. Except when he’s playing too fast and loose, which he often did Saturday.
“When we move the basketball, we’re a pretty good team,” Weber said. “But we go one-on-one too much. Some of it’s our youth, but some of it you’ve got to put on my shoulders.”
Iowa State tried to bury K-State. The Cyclones made 8 of 11 three-point attempts in the first half and their 46 points were the most the Wildcats have allowed in a half this season.
But K-State is prideful. K-State fights. And it was no different in one of the Big 12’s most hostile environments.
If you’re a Wildcat fan, you have to love this team’s resolve. It’s decision making at times, though, is hard to follow.
Spradling, for instance, got off only one shot after his quick three-point barrage. Give ISU freshman Monte Morris some of the credit. Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg said Morris is his team’s best defender and he was switched to Spradling down the stretch.
With Gipson taken out of the game, K-State was forced to rely on Southwell and Foster. And each made critical mistakes in the game’s final couple of minutes.
That’s a tough assignment for any freshman, and Southwell has never had to be a go-to player. That’s asking too much of him.
“Against Iowa State, if you were patient and grinded it out, it seemed like you were able to get opportunities,” Weber said.
But the Wildcats had to put so much into playing catch-up that they couldn’t slow down in the game’s biggest moments.
“We’re a good team,” Weber said. “But do you want to be a really good team? That’s the question and it’ll be determined by our leadership, staying focused and our young guys learning the game. When to go, when not to. We’re getting better.”
K-State’s ceiling is high. Sometimes you’re going to crash your heads into that ceiling before you learn not to jump quite so high.
In Foster, Thomas and Iwundu, the Wildcats have three freshmen who could become Big 12 stars.
But the upperclassmen have to lend a guiding hand to get them there. That didn’t happen Saturday.
“Shane and Thomas have to play better,” Weber said. “We had our opportunities again. We battled.”
K-State is 14-6, 4-3 in the Big 12, but could be two games better after last week. The Wildcats came up empty.
Next year might be different. But in the here and now, it was a disappointing swing.