Wesley Iwundu took the floor as a starter for Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament in 2014, and after a tough loss in a physical game against Kentucky, he believed there would be more postseasons in his future.
“For sure,” Iwundu said. “We had high expectations after my freshmen year.”
But a season soaked in controversy, ending with the dismissal of players, soured Iwundu’s sophomore season, and although last year’s team was free of those problems, success didn’t follow.
Iwundu has a final opportunity to return to the NCAA Tournament, and the chances of that occurring will ride largely on his ability to push himself through another year of improvement.
His 11.9 scoring average was second on the team and makes Iwundu the Wildcats’ top returning scorer. Adding a couple of buckets to the average is an objective for Iwundu, but it doesn’t stop there.
“With the experience I have, I think it’s obvious my scoring is going to go up,” said Iwundu, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard from Houston. “But other parts of my game have to take off.”
Mainly shooting. Iwundu hasn’t been a three-point threat in his career. Criticizing his shooting would be easy; he’s made 29 percent. But Iwundu plays to his strength. He only has attempted 66 shots from behind the arc.
The attempts and percentage will improve, Wildcats coach Bruce Weber insists.
“You’ll be shocked if you haven’t seen him, he’s put in the time, the discipline, really working on that shot,” Weber said.
Coach and player are on the same wavelength when it comes to Iwundu’s upside.
“He’s got to do the things he did last year and throughout his career, getting out in transition, using his athleticism, getting a couple of putbacks, getting to the free-throw line,” Weber said. “He’s going to have to do all those things other things and distribute, lead, defend.
“That’s going to make him special and be a leader on our team.”
Iwundu wants that role. One way to know if he’s successful is if the Wildcats can improve their effort in road games. His teams have won four Big 12 games on the road in the past three years, one in each of the last two years.
“It’s about making sure everybody understands how difficult it is and how much work goes into winning on the road,” Iwundu said. “If we can win some road games, we’ll be in a good position to reach the tournament.”
Iwundu looks back on that night against Kentucky in St. Louis as a lost opportunity. K-State succeeded in controlling tempo, played great defense and forced 15 Kentucky turnovers. But it couldn’t come up with a big shot down the stretch in a seven-point loss.
Kentucky upset top-seeded Wichita State in the next game and went on to the national championship game. K-State has gone 32-33 overall and 13-23 in Big 12 games since. The Wildcats are picked ninth in the league this season.
Team optimism is built around returning players Iwundu, forwards D.J. Johnson and Dean Wade, and guards Carlbe Ervin, Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes, who was putting together a solid year as a freshman point guard before a season-ending injury. There is excitement for freshman forward Xavier Sneed, who showed his athleticism on the Wildcats’ summer tour of Italy and Switzerland.
But it will start with Iwundu.
“We’ve taken a step back from my freshman year, but I think we can be right back where we were my freshman year,” Iwundu said.