It’s fair to wonder if Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber is secretly putting extra pressure on himself to guide the Wildcats past Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
A victory would lift an overweight gorilla off his back and serve as further proof the program is trending up. A loss would give his detractors another year of ammunition about his postseason struggles.
There’s a lot at stake.
Weber knows this. He took Southern Illinois to the Sweet 16 and then Illinois to the national championship game, but he hasn’t advanced past the round of 64 since being hired at K-State six years ago.
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“For our guys, that is what it’s all about,” Weber said. “I would love for them to experience it.”
By all accounts, Weber has made progress this season. The Wildcats won 22 games, finished fourth in the Big 12 and earned a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They haven’t been this good since Weber’s first year, when he led Frank Martin’s players to 27 victories and a shared Big 12 championship.
And without a scholarship senior on the roster, they appear set up for more success next season. Though he remains unpopular with at least a segment of K-State's fans, his approval rating is on the rise.
Still, a negative stat hangs over Weber like a storm cloud: His K-State teams are 0-3 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Outside of a play-in victory over Wake Forest last season, there hasn’t been any postseason success to speak of.
Weber has guided K-State to the Big Dance four times in six seasons, but he has never advanced to the Round of 32. The Wildcats lost to LaSalle as a No. 4 seed in Kansas City in 2013, tumbled against Kentucky as a No. 9 seed a year later and were no match for Cincinnati as a No. 11 seed last year.
Compounding the situation: Martin won at least one game in all four of his trips to the NCAA Tournament, including an Elite Eight run in 2010.
You have to go back to 2011 to find Weber’s last victory in the real bracket, when he led Illinois past UNLV 73-59.
The Kentucky and Cincinnati losses were understandable. The Wildcats went to the Final Four and the Bearcats were the class of the American.
But LaSalle … in Kansas City … with Rodney McGruder, Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling …
That one still hurts.
“The first year was so disappointing,” Weber said. “I have coached thousands of games. To lose that game in Kansas City was one of the most disappointing losses I have been a part of.”
“I know that group spent a lot of energy trying to win the Big 12,” Weber said, “and getting to the championship game of the (Big 12) tournament. They just didn’t have the energy or focus. That’s part of the NCAA Tournament. It happens.”
K-State has remade its roster and moved on since then.
All-conference players Dean Wade and Barry Brown are the best duo the Wildcats have had since Weber’s first year.
NCAA Tournament success would be another step forward.
“It’s kind of like the real thing now, coming out and playing great competition like Creighton,” Wade said. “It would be great to get one win and keep building off that. It’s March, anything can happen.”
Creighton is favored by 1 ½ points, yet it won’t be considered a true upset if K-State beats the Bluejays.
But there’s no denying it would be a big deal for Weber and his team.
“I think that would be great for us to show that we are capable of,” Brown said, “not only getting to the tournament, but winning some games. I think winning some games will be great for us and our program.”