Bruce Weber faced a question every basketball coach dreads during a 75-61 loss to Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
What do you do when your best player picks up a pair of quick fouls?
It’s a dilemma Weber has had to solve countless times this season with various K-State players, but this was different. The man in foul trouble was Wesley Iwundu, the senior wing who upped his game over the past month to guide the Wildcats into the postseason and then erupted for 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds earlier this week in a victory over Wake Forest.
“In a game like this,” Iwundu said, “I want to be in there.”
He wasn’t, and the game felt in danger of slipping away when he was whistled for his second foul with 11:44 remaining in the first half. Weber had to take Iwundu out, but for how long? Cincinnati was ahead 17-11 at the time. The longer the Wildcats could keep it close, the longer Iwundu could remain on the bench. The quicker the Bearcats widened the gap, the quicker he had to go back in.
Well, Cincinnati surged ahead 27-14 behind some hot shooting, and Weber decided to gamble. He inserted Iwundu back into the game with 7:39 remaining with instructions to take it easy on defense and avoid further fouls before halftime. Leaving him on the bench, with his teammates missing one contested shot after another without him, felt like raising a white flag.
“He was the one that gave us athleticism,” Weber said. “He got the ball in the paint, making the plays and playing at a high level. You can look at the box score. We really didn’t have anybody else step up tonight, so we needed him.”
The strategy looked like it might pay off when he quickly got to the free-throw line for two points, but it backfired when he picked up a cheap foul trying to defend Jacob Evans. Understanding the situation, Evans drove at Iwundu and made contact with Iwundu as he held his arms in the air.
Iwundu was hoping for a charge or a no-call from the officials, but they whistled him for a block.
“They seen some things that I didn’t agree with, the refs,” Iwundu said. “But it is what it is.”
Iwundu went back to the bench, logging just four points on three attempts in nine minutes of action in the first half, exactly what Bearcats coach Mick Cronin desired.
“We tried to get the third (foul) and then we tried to go at him to get the fourth,” Cronin said. “... No doubt, those were very big plays for us, and I give our guys credit.”
Fellow senior D.J. Johnson also only saw nine minutes before the break, telling Weber early on, “I just don’t have it today.” It was a bizarre start.
Cincinnati took advantage and built a 39-28 halftime lead. The way it was playing, that was enough to advance to the round of the 32.
No. 11-seed K-State ended its season 21-14. Not bad considering the Big 12 coaches picked it to finish ninth. The Wildcats made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. But some expected more when they started 15-4.
No. 6-seed Cincinnati (30-5) will face the winner of UCLA and Kent State on Sunday.
“Cincinnati brought their A-game and they played at a high level,” Weber said. “We didn’t play our best game.”
Iwundu tried to lead K-State on a second-half run by making some three-pointers early in the second half and attacking the basket on his way to a team-high 19 points, but the Wildcats couldn’t sustain anything against the Bearcats and their stingy defense.
K-State is at its best when it has multiple scorers reach double figures. This is a versatile group, and it needs all hands on deck to win games against top competition. But no one else delivered. Dean Wade had nine points on nine attempts, Johnson had eight points in 22 minutes, Barry Brown went 3 for 10, Kamau Stokes went 2 for 10. Overall, they made 38.9 percent of their shots.
Cincinnati was one of the top defensive teams in the nation, and it proved why in this game, forcing K-State to score in the half court rather than find cheap points in transition or on offensive rebounds.
“They played a real compact defense,” Wade said. “They just packed the lane and then they did a lot of fly switching. They switched everything and that threw us off a bit. It made it really hard to reverse the ball.”
It was able to hunker down defensively thanks to a red-hot start on offense.
The first half had to feel like a nightmare for K-State.
Some thought Cincinnati, a team that won 29 games in the regular season, was under-seeded in this tournament, and the Bearcats played that way early, looking like a bonafide Sweet 16 contender.
They made their first eight shots to take a 20-12 lead. They were so hot that K-State fans let out a sigh of relief when they finally saw Jacob Evans clank a shot off the rim with 10:28 remaining in the first half. But not even that did the Wildcats much good. Cincinnati grabbed an offensive rebound and got the ball to Troy Caupain, who hit an open jumper.
Caupain went on to lead all scorers with 23 points, while Kyle Washington added 16.
“It was pretty frustrating,” Wade said. “We were playing pretty good defense but they were just knocking down shots. They were hitting shots and we couldn’t catch a break. It happens. It’s basketball. They just played better than us today.”
Iwundu never let K-State give up, but the deficit was too large to mount a serious comeback attempt.
K-State’s best chance to get back in the game came with 14:10 remaining when Brown followed a transition layup with a three-pointer to pull K-State within 49-43. But the Wildcats couldn’t get any closer.
Cincinnati pulled ahead by as many as 17 and advanced to the next round.
“They are a good team and they have good players,” Brown said. “I just feel like they were the tougher team. That was the biggest thing. They just got us today. We just have to come out and be tougher and do the little things that help us win. I guess that’s something we will have to try and do next year.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett