Many college basketball coaches would be upset by the loss of six underclassmen in the same year, but Bruce Weber is not one of them.
Speaking publicly Wednesday for the first time since Kansas State finished its season last month with a disappointing 15-17 record, Weber showed no remorse for the dismissals of Marcus Foster, Malek Harris and Tre Harris or the transfers of Jevon Thomas, Nigel Johnson and Jack Karapetyan.
“We didn’t have kids who did the right things, and we had to make a decision,” Weber said. “We feel good about the guys we have coming in. We feel good about the guys we have coming back. I think with a great spring and summer we are going to be very competitive.”
The more he spoke, the more optimistic he became.
Never miss a local story.
“It is never fun (to go through a season like this),” he continued. “The tough love and all that stuff is not fun. I want to coach. That is what I want to do, but that is just a small portion of our job. If we get the right guys in here, then you get to do the coaching like you want and then it is much more fun.”
It may take time for others to share his positive outlook. K-State returns five scholarship players next season — Wesley Iwundu, Justin Edwards, Stephen Hurt, D.J. Johnson and Brandon Bolden — and none of them averaged more than 6.3 points. Foster, the team’s leading scorer in each of the past two seasons, has transferred to Creighton, while Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams, the team’s other main contributors, have exhausted their eligibility.
In all likelihood, the Wildcats will be picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 standings.
“I don’t care,” Weber said.
A six-man recruiting class made up entirely of three-star players is on its way, and Weber says all six have winning backgrounds. St. John forward Dean Wade won multiple state titles in high school, point guard Kamau Stokes has won championships, junior-college transfer Carlbe Ervin has been on a team that won 30 straight games.
“Two years ago, when we had all those young freshmen here, I don’t think any of you thought a couple of them would step up like they did,” Weber said, referencing K-State’s 20-win season in 2014. “We obviously will need some guys to step in and have immediate impacts if we are going to be special. But I don’t think there is any doubt that is possible.”
How did K-State get to this point? Where to begin.
The team suffered through its first losing season since 2003, missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2007. Lineup changes, suspensions, dysfunction and unpredictable results became the norm. When things worked, the Wildcats played well enough to beat top 10 teams. When things got ugly, they lost to Texas Southern, Texas Tech and TCU.
Weber was sometimes critical of his team, saying they were unwilling to play hard. A tumultuous offseason appeared on the way, and then it arrived.
Criticism has rained down on Weber with each dismissal and transfer, but he said he did not notice any of it. When fans approach him around Manhattan, he said, he is greeted with handshakes and thank yous from strangers telling him to keep up the good work. He said many have told him he runs the program with integrity.
“I think it is pretty obvious why they had to be let go,” Weber said of Foster, Malek Harris and Tre Harris. “I don’t need to get into it. We are just worried about getting guys that want to be here and play K-State basketball. Guys that play their butts off, go to class, take pride in getting a degree and just act right. That’s all there is to it.”
Weber said he will try and add one more player to K-State’s 2015 recruiting class and save his final available scholarship for 2016. He mentioned the possibility of adding a graduate transfer or traditional transfer to balance out the Wildcats’ classes. He does not expect any more players to leave the program and has been encouraged by the effort shown by his returning players during spring workouts. More often than not, he said, they are at K-State’s practice facility before 7 a.m. working together as a group.
“You can’t be a union worker and be a great basketball player,” Weber said. “If you only come when the coaches are there, you are not going to be special.”
He said he has seen improvement from Edwards and Iwundu, and he expects them to be among K-State’s best players next season. He also said Johnson is finally recovering from his year-long foot injury and is back running. He is encouraged by all of it.
Ideally, last season would have gone better. But that doesn’t dampen his outlook on next season.
“Sometimes you have to go through some growing pains,” Weber said, “to make some progress.”