MANHATTAN — For the second straight year, Kansas State’s basketball season ended without a victory in the NCAA Tournament.
And, for the second straight year, Kansas State’s basketball season should be considered a success despite the lack of a March run.
A Big 12 championship, the program’s first in more than three decades, trumped all last season. This time, a 20-victory season that featured victories over Kansas, Iowa State, Gonzaga and Oklahoma, as well as a winning conference record, demands approval.
Bruce Weber entered the season with a young roster and NIT expectations. Guiding the Wildcats to a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament should be seen as an achievement, even though they appeared capable of more at times.
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Sure, a four-game losing streak was an ugly way to end the season. A 2-3 start that included losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte wasn’t much better. In between, though, K-State showed promise. It won 10 straight games and started Big 12 play 4-1. Eight of its losses came by single digits or in overtime.
“We got a lot accomplished,” senior guard Will Spradling said. “I feel like we left some stuff out there. The way the season started, it could have gone a lot worse. We really fought through the challenges and turned the season around.”
For that reason, it will head into the 2014-15 season with optimism.
“K-State is really on the rise,” senior guard Shane Southwell said. “They will be a great program for years to come.”
That will mean little to those that wanted to see K-State progress to the round of 32 and beyond in the NCAA Tournament. After K-State smashed Texas and beat Kansas in overtime during a three-day span in February, the Wildcats appeared destined for a high league finish and a quality seed.
Then they lost in overtime at home to Baylor, and they never recovered, losing six of their last nine.
Blame can be placed anywhere for those problems. K-State thrived in front of home crowds, going 15-2, but it was mediocre at best away from Bramlage Coliseum, going 5-11 and winning two true road games.
Weber didn’t coach well at times, oddly becoming more interested in how the Big 12 schedules off weeks than the game at hand. The freshman class that shined for much of the season seemed to run out of energy when the calendar flipped to March, with Marcus Foster and Wesley Iwundu admitting to fatigue. And the senior class never stepped up.
Southwell was among the team’s best players early and undeserving of playing time late. Spradling was K-State’s unselfish glue guy the whole way, and his play was paramount in wins over Kansas and Iowa State, but fouls and missed shots plagued him during the postseason.
How will K-State moves on without them? Southwell was capable of playing at high levels and Spradling was K-State’s only player who fully understood Weber’s motion offense. But they will be easier to replace than Rodney McGruder, Jordan Henriquez and Martavious Irving were a year ago.
“They aren’t boisterous guys,” Weber said of his senior class before the NCAA Tournament. “We come every day hoping for some epiphany and they have the little fairy godmother who comes and does a little wand on them and the next day they come and they are great leaders. They are what they are.”
This was a freshman-driven team.
Foster was the go-to-guy. He averaged 15.5 points and earned second-team all-conference honors. He is the best freshman to come through the program since Michael Beasley. His future appears limitless.
Along with Iwundu, who started 32 games, and the maturation of junior forward Thomas Gipson, the Wildcats have a strong core returning.
They will join Maine transfer Justin Edwards, a gifted and athletic scorer, and Georgetown center Brandon Bolden, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocker, next season, along with touted junior-college forward Stephen Hurt. Incoming freshman Tre Harris could also provide an outside shooting threat.
K-State will be much bigger and athletic next season. The matchup problems Weber has faced against top frontcourts may disappear. Scoring and depth should also improve.
If Jevon Thomas and Nigel Johnson can mature as point guards and Nino Williams and D.J. Johnson can improve inside, the Wildcats could look better in all areas next season.
Leadership will be the biggest question.
This season was supposed to be a time for K-State to rebuild. It turned out to be a transition year.
That means success, with or without a victory in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have a good group of freshmen,” Weber said. “Jevon is going to be a heck of a player ... Our group coming back, Thomas has to be our leader, with Nino (Williams), and set the example and make sure that we have a great off-season and see if we can make some strides next year. Not only get in the tournament, but go somewhere.”