Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber is already looking forward to next season. He thinks the Wildcats return enough talent to improve on the 21 games they won this season while reaching the NCAA Tournament.
With a little luck, he sees them ascending to where they were when he took over as coach five years ago, competing for Big 12 championships and advancing deep into the postseason. He can see them sustaining that kind of success. He can even picture himself retiring in Manhattan after it happens.
“I love K-State,” Weber said Friday following a 75-61 loss to Cincinnati. “It’s been such a good place with great people and a great place to live. There are so many positives. I would love that. I would love to get the program where we are not only getting to the NCAA Tournament, but moving forward.
“We need a few more players and a commitment to it, but I can’t feel more proud about being part of the program.”
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What will it take for K-State to reach those lofty goals?
That’s a question Weber and K-State players will try to answer this offseason. The Wildcats took a step forward this year. Though some hoped for more than a 21-14 record, a sixth-place conference finish and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament, especially after a 15-4 start, it was an improvement over the past two seasons, which ended without as much as a trip to the NIT.
“It was a positive season, a step up from my freshman year when we didn’t make it to any tournament,” sophomore guard Barry Brown said. “I feel blessed to have been a part of it.
Heartbreaking, last-second losses to Maryland, Kansas, Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia prevented it from being a special season. A 2-8 swoon, which included a 30-point loss to hapless Oklahoma, threatened to derail it and briefly put Weber’s job security in jeopardy. But the Wildcats finished strong.
Quality victories over Baylor (twice) and West Virginia earned them an at-large spot on the bracket. Then they outdueled Wake Forest in the First Four.
“We had a lot of special moments,” Weber said. “We were just probably a little young at certain spots, a little this, a little that. We didn’t maybe have the depth we needed at certain spots.”
Still, not bad for a team Big 12 coaches picked to finish ninth and lost two scholarship players (Cartier Diarra and James Love) to injury before the season began. Forward Dante Williams also transferred.
“We surprised a lot of people,” sophomore forward Dean Wade said. “In the locker room, we had high expectations for ourselves, but we shocked a lot of people who picked us ninth in the Big 12. We showed a lot of people we can play.”
That won’t be enough to dispel Weber’s critics. After five seasons, his record stands at 100-68 with three NCAA Tournament appearances and a shared conference championship, but he hasn’t guided K-State beyond the round of 64.
There are some that want change.
For now, it appears Weber will get at least one more season to win over the masses. It would cost K-State $2.5 million to buyout his contract, which runs through 2019. It’s possible Weber could look for a landing spot elsewhere, but he said he wants to return.
He is optimistic about the future. With a young nucleus returning, the Wildcats are certainly capable of taking another step forward next season.
Kamau Stokes (11.6 points, 4.3 assists), Brown (11.7 points, 3.2 rebounds) and Wade (9.4 points 4.6 rebounds) all have two years of starting experience and will get opportunities to lead as juniors.
All three had moments of brilliance and disappointment. Stokes scored 22 against Wake Forest, Wade twice scored 20 against Kansas and Brown was nails in K-State’s pivotal win over Baylor at the Big 12 Tournament.
At other times they were all nonfactors.
Wade may have been the biggest enigma of all.
“Slowly but surely he had some nice moments,” Weber said. “He still doesn’t have the confidence that I hope he gets to next year, because I think he can be a force.”
Xavier Sneed had some impressive moments as a freshman, but hit a wall in February and never recovered. Can he regain his form as a sophomore? Redshirt freshman Isaiah Maurice came on near the end of the year. Brian Patrick is a gifted shooter and some think Diarra might be the best guard on the roster.
Next year, K-State could go small and start Diarra, Stokes and Brown in the backcourt, with Wade and Maurice down low. Sneed could also take over on the wing or as a stretch four.
“We have got good pieces, young guys like myself,” Brown said. “The bulk of next year’s team is already here. I hope we can use this experience to take things to the next level.”
Incoming freshmen include a trio of three-star prospects, forwards Nigel Shadd and Levi Stockard, and guard Mike McGuirl.
Weber’s top priority is to add at least one more forward, preferably from junior college or a graduate transfer. Another point guard would help, too.
K-State will need size to replace senior forward D.J. Johnson and ballhandlers to replace wing Wesley Iwundu.
Johnson (11.2 points, 5.8 rebounds) was the backbone of this team, doing all the dirty work inside. Iwundu (12.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists) was the playmaker, putting the offense on his back the last month of the season.
Both showed significant growth during their careers. K-State’s sophomores need to follow suit.
Weber made major changes to K-State’s offense, which helped it score in transition. But the Wildcats struggled in the half court, rarely using screens or pick-and-roll plays to their advantage. Johnson never got as many shots as he deserved inside. When things broke down, Iwundu had to do it all himself.
Replacing them won’t be easy.
Those responsibilities now fall on a young nucleus of players that have been a part of the NCAA Tournament.
“You always want more, there is no doubt about that,” Weber said. “Moving forward, we have to take another step. This is a taste of it. Now it’s about how hard you are going to work to get there.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett