Kansas State University

Roster upheaval has Kansas State basketball at a crossroads

K-State coach Bruce Weber said in building a program, you can’t anticipate dismissing three players after a season. “You try to do your due diligence in doing background checks and knowing something about the young man, but a lot of things can happen and it is just a disappointing part of the job,” he said.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said in building a program, you can’t anticipate dismissing three players after a season. “You try to do your due diligence in doing background checks and knowing something about the young man, but a lot of things can happen and it is just a disappointing part of the job,” he said. The Wichita Eagle

By design, the typical contract for a college basketball coach lasts five years. Year 1 is a transition. Year 2 is for building. Year 3 is a time to evaluate. Year 4 is all about results, which ultimately decide whether a coach makes it to Year 5 and beyond.

Why is Year 4 so important? It’s the time when a coach breaks ties from his predecessor. Inherited recruits have moved on, leaving a roster and mindset built entirely by the current coach. Time to hit his stride.

For Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, the opposite is happening. Year 4 is filled with uncertainty.

After guiding the Wildcats to a share of the Big 12 championship in his first season, the program has steadily declined. Their win totals have dropped each season, from 27 to 20 to 15. This year, K-State missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2007, suffering its first losing record since 2003.

Making matters worse, K-State has lost six underclassmen this year, tying Washington for the most of any power-conference team. Three – Marcus Foster, Malek Harris and Tre Harris – were dismissed, while three others – Jevon Thomas, Nigel Johnson and Jack Karapetyan – transferred. Add on two graduating seniors, and Weber is left with five returning scholarship players who combined to average 17.2 points last season.

Instead of hitting his stride with players he recruited and molded for three years, he is hitting the reset button, hoping a new batch of recruits can turn things around.

“We feel good about our class,” Weber said of a six-man group that could grow larger. “If we can add another one that is a good fit, we will feel even way better about it. Sometimes you have to go through some growing pains to make some progress.”

Problem is, those growing pains are a direct result of his recruiting.

Frequent flyer

After taking over for Frank Martin in the spring of 2012, Weber traveled across the country in search of new players, boarding flights during every recruiting window and, during the season, leaving his team between games to scout. He jokes that he is seldom home.

“Yesterday I was in four states in three different parts of the country,” Weber said Wednesday. “I think I have been to six different states since Sunday. It is my job to make sure we get the right kids in here.”

His hands-on approach costs considerably more than what K-State has traditionally spent on basketball recruiting. Weber’s staff has averaged $361,378 in recruiting expenses over three years, while Martin’s staff averaged $261,260 over five, according to past fiscal reports obtained by The Eagle. During the 2013 fiscal year, K-State spent a Weber-era low $320,198 on basketball recruiting and still ranked second in the Big 12. Kansas, which spent a national-high $514,676, led the way, while the Big 12 average was $274,555, according to USA Today. Texas ranked last, spending $151,251.

K-State athletic director John Currie was unavailable for comment, but through a school spokesman explained the bump in spending was due to new NCAA rules that allow additional coaches from each staff to recruit and recruit more regularly.

That helped Weber land commitments from 14 players in his first three recruiting cycles.

The majority of those commitments came from players that carried three-star rankings from recruiting services and were lightly recruited by power-conference teams. There were exceptions – Malek Harris was a consensus top-100 recruit with a four-star ranking and Karapeyan was relatively unknown – but those were his usual targets.

It was different from the approach he used previously at Illinois, where he largely targeted in-state players, but similar to the one he employed before that as a Purdue assistant. He casts a wide recruiting net, because of the Sunflower State’s small population and his desire to find overlooked talent.

He said he hopes to find the next Ron Baker, a Scott City product who walked on at Wichita State and became a star.

“There are so many players this day in age that are not heavily recruited that end up being better than the ones that are,” Weber said, “because they get all the hype and maybe don’t work as hard, don’t have the coachability. You see it all the time. Obviously, it is easy to get that top-10 kid. That next group that is coachable and wants to work at it and has a little chip on their shoulder, (getting them) is key.”

Recruiting rundown

Weber was confident he found those types of players in his first three recruiting classes. More often than not, they weren’t.

Of the first 14 players that pledged to Weber, five remain. Of those five – Brandon Bolden, Justin Edwards, Stephen Hurt, Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson -- none averaged more than 6.3 points last season.

Two of the original 14 commitments never made it to K-State, four decided to transfer and three were dismissed.

They did not last for varying reasons.

Alex Etherington withdrew his commitment following his recruiting visit, informing Weber his game was better suited for a smaller conference. He ended up at Indiana State, where he averaged three points as a redshirt freshman, and is now transferring to NCAA Division II University of Indianapolis. Neville Fincher failed to qualify academically, went to junior college and is now headed to Tennessee State.

Michael Orris and Karapetyan were both lightly recruited and barely played as freshmen. They transferred in search of playing time. Orris is a reserve guard at Northern Illinois. Karapetyan’s next stop is unknown.

Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas transferred to be closer to home after two up-and-down years. Weber suggested Thomas expressed interest in returning after initially announcing his exit, but by then it was too late to reverse course. He reportedly toured Seton Hall last weekend. Johnson has committed to Rutgers, becoming the first Weber departure to land at another power-conference school, albeit a Big Ten bottom feeder.

Foster, the only double-digit scorer of the group, shined as a freshman, creating hope that Weber had found a player he could build around. But he floundered as a sophomore and was ultimately dismissed for disciplinary reasons along with Tre Harris and Malek Harris. Foster has since transferred to Creighton. Malek Harris and Tre Harris have not announced transfer plans.

“I don’t think you could ever anticipate that,” Weber said of dismissing three players. “You try to do your due diligence in doing background checks and knowing something about the young man, but a lot of things can happen and it is just a disappointing part of the job.”

Weber may have been able to see trouble coming with Malek Harris. He was also kicked off his high school team as a senior. But Weber defended the choice, saying he spoke to countless people about him before deciding Harris was “a great kid.”

“Obviously he made some bad decisions in his life,” Weber said, “and that happens.”

Weber did not seem bothered by the departures this week, saying changes had to be made for the good of the program. Transfers are common in college basketball, he said. Under Martin, K-State lost 10 players in five years and was set to lose more had he stayed instead of leaving for South Carolina. It was Weber who convinced players such as Will Spradling and Nino Williams to stay. After retaining a full roster last year, Weber said, the law of averages is simply setting in.

“Mr. Currie talks about transition with jobs,” Weber said, “and usually when you have that transition, if you follow anybody, there is usually some kind of setback. We were very fortunate for the most part to maintain all the guys that first year and we transitioned great and had an unbelievable year. We were able to avoid some of that. Obviously, it caught up to us now. It is just part of it.”

He does not expect mass transfers in future seasons. Nor does he plan on changing his recruiting approach.

“I think we have done a pretty good job, to be honest, finding guys that, on the court, their production has been pretty good,” Weber said. “When you take over a job it is not easy, because you are trying to find guys that people have been recruiting for two years. They have been a pretty good group and they were productive on the court, but we obviously had some off-the-court issues that made a little bit of a difference.

“You go through some of the recruiting service things with kids and our name is in on a lot of kids. You don’t get them all, obviously, but I think our coaches work really hard and K-State is a factor.”

Less with more

The best mid-major coaches recruit players good enough to play in a power conference. The best power-conference coaches recruit players with NBA futures.

They recruit up.

At K-State, Weber has struggled to do the same, signing too many players that turned out to be troublemakers or lacked Big 12 talent.

He has done so while enjoying perks unavailable to his predecessor, such as an average budget of $5.78 million, up from $4.71 million under Martin, and access to a new training facility. Before Weber arrived, the Wildcats shared practice space with the women’s team inside Bramlage Coliseum.

It’s a small sample size, but Weber has averaged 20.6 wins after Martin averaged 23.4.

He has done less with more, following a pattern he established at Illinois. After two magical seasons in which he won 63 games and played for a national championship in 2005, his teams averaged 20 victories over the next seven seasons, never again reaching the Sweet 16 and missing the NCAA Tournament three times.

After winning big with touted players such as Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and James Augustine – all Bill Self recruits – he could not sustain that success with his own recruits. Much like at K-State, he signed mostly three-star players, though his final recruiting classes included bigger names, including NBA lottery pick Meyers Leonard.

Perhaps an incoming recruiting class that features St. John forward Dean Wade, the top-rated Kansas high school senior, and Connors State College point guard Carlbe Ervin, a junior-college all-American, will fix things.

The Wildcats certainly need a push in the right direction. Weber signed a pair of one-year contract extensions after his first two seasons, and Currie backs him. So, for Weber, this may feel more like Year 2 than Year 4. Still, results will define his fourth season. He built this team.

Weber thinks this group can deliver. He raves about incoming point guard Kamau Stokes, guard Barry Brown, center Dante Williams and forward Isaiah Maurice, saying they all have winning backgrounds and strong work ethics.

They are ready to be on campus.

“We are basically starting a whole new program,” Stokes said. “But we have real good guys coming in. I like them. They are all like me. They like to work and compete. We are all going to work our hardest to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”

It has happened before. Texas lost five players in 2013 and bounced back with consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, though coach Rick Barnes was fired late last month. And West Virginia recovered from the loss of five players that same year to make the Sweet 16 last season.

A quick rebuild is possible, even under these circumstances.

“We have a good group now that has taken pride in the K-State way,” Weber said. “The next group we have coming in, you can just tell by what they have done that winning has been a key component with them. That will be a big emphasis for us in maintaining that K-State way.”

Reach Kellis Robinett at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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