Reactions were mixed among Kansas State basketball fans when Bruce Weber was hired last year. Then he brought the Wildcats a share of their first conference championship since 1977 and was named Big 12 Coach of the Year. His approval rating soared.
But now that his first season is over, he is back to trying to prove he is capable of sustained success.
Fair or not, some will remember Weber’s first year with the Wildcats more for an early exit from the NCAA Tournament than a first year-record 27 victories. At least some of the goodwill he built up was negated by a stunning loss to La Salle last week in Kansas City.
“That is just part of it,” Weber said Thursday. “How many teams are in it now, 68? Sixty-four or 65 will be focusing on a finish. Even when you get to the Final Four, and I had that opportunity, when you don’t win it you have a lump in your stomach. When it is all said and done you were part of it. That’s pretty cool. But everyone else is saying, ‘We could have gone another step. We should still be playing.’
“That’s the way it is. It’s college basketball in the 2000s. The tournament is very, very important.”
So what went wrong for K-State on the big stage? It had seemingly everything going for it – a No. 4 seed, nearly a full week of rest while No. 13-seed La Salle had to beat Boise State earlier in the week, and a friendly Sprint Center crowd – but fell behind by 19 in the first half and couldn’t protect a late lead.
Looking back, Weber still isn’t totally sure. A few days ago, he asked his players for their thoughts. They said they were mentally prepared, they simply played poorly.
“We are one of the most consistent teams in the country and then we come to that last game and we are totally inconsistent,” Weber said. “It defied everything that had happened all year. We always seemed to beat people. We won close games. In that game I don’t know if we were uptight or we took them too lightly or maybe it was the pressure of playing at home. But we weren’t who we were.”
That was obvious by K-State missing layups and dunks in the first half, and leading scorer Rodney McGruder missing shots he usually makes.
Weber wondered if mounting injuries were a factor. Will Spradling was mostly ineffective after suffering a bruised sternum at Texas, and Angel Rodriguez, who is scheduled for surgery Friday to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist, played one of his worst games.
On Thursday, Weber said Martavious Irving and Nino Williams were also playing hurt and will require surgery in the coming weeks to repair lingering knee injuries.
“You don’t have any idea,” Weber said. “Angel couldn’t practice. He was a one-handed player for three or four weeks. Will didn’t practice, any contact for a month. That takes a toll … Those guys survived a lot and they showed toughness and resilience. If you play at a high level, you are going to have a lot of bumps and bruises. It just happens.”
K-State also had little time to practice for La Salle.
“We had one day for preparation,” Weber said. “You have to play a 13-seed who is better than their seed, and you only get one day to prepare and it wasn’t even really a day. They played at 10 at night and we had practice the next morning at 11. What can you get done? But it is what it is. You can’t make excuses.”
Weber said he has already met individually with his coaching staff and some of K-State’s players. With Thomas Gipson, Shane Southwell, Spradling and Rodriguez returning, K-State has a solid nucleus. And incoming recruits Marcus Foster, who was named Texas 3A Player of the Year on Wednesday, and Wesley Iwundu, who is climbing the recruiting rankings, both seem capable of contributing next season.
Point guard Jevon Thomas should also provide help once he becomes eligible in January, while committed power forward Neville Fincher could provide depth inside.
But will that be enough to make up for the loss of McGruder? He has been K-State’s top player and leader for two seasons.
“I don’t think people realize how important he was,” Weber said. “He is special, there is no doubt about it. He did it with numbers, he did it with character, he did it with work ethic … The big thing is whether it is Will, Shane or Angel, we need somebody to step up and provide leadership.”
Weber is actively recruiting a few other 2013 targets in case of a transfer, but his main recruiting focus lies with the class of 2014. He has proven he can win with players inherited from other coaching staffs at Illinois and K-State, but some wonder if he can recruit well enough to win with his recruits. He knows how important that group will be.
Still, for now he is hoping the players currently on the roster improve to a point where they can win without the help of new recruits.
The two players he wants to see progress from this summer: Adrian Diaz and Spradling. With enough work, and possibly a redshirt season, he thinks Diaz could play meaningful minutes inside. If Spradling can become a consistent outside shooter, he thinks K-State’s offense will reach another level.
“He has got all the other stuff, his understanding of the game and his skills are good,” Weber said. “I hope he can make a big step. There’s no doubt that would be big.”
In a perfect world, Weber wouldn’t be thinking that far ahead yet. He would still be focused on the NCAA Tournament.
His first season at K-State was mostly successful, but it had a sour ending.
“With all the uncertainty, it ended up pretty good,” Weber said. “The team came together, had good chemistry, a lot of good things.… Obviously, the last game bothers us. It is going to stay with us until next year.”