Kansas State University

As Dean Wade leads K-State into NCAA Tournament, he's become a Kansas small-town hero

Kansas State Wildcats forward Dean Wade worked on his three-point shooting during Kansas State's practice at the Sprint Center on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Kansas City, Missouri, for their quarterfinal game against TCU on Thursday.
Kansas State Wildcats forward Dean Wade worked on his three-point shooting during Kansas State's practice at the Sprint Center on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Kansas City, Missouri, for their quarterfinal game against TCU on Thursday.

Somewhere right now in a small Kansas town a young basketball player is chasing his dream.

He’s putting up extra shots, he’s running after practice and he’s learning how to defend. He’s working on his game with one goal in mind. He wants to be the next Dean Wade.

Wade, the breakout junior forward on Kansas State’s basketball team, has a message for that child: Don’t give up.

“I am very proud that young players in this state look up to me and what I have accomplished, growing up in St. John and making it at Kansas State,” Wade said. “There are little kids from little towns that probably don’t know they can do something like this. I am here to show them and prove to them that they can do it.”

This is a surreal conversation for Wade. Few envisioned he would reach role-model status when he arrived at Kansas State as a skinny, timid freshman. He used to idolize Ron Baker for making the leap from Scott City to Wichita State and then the NBA. Now Wade is on a similar path as the face of both K-State basketball and his hometown.

Wade averaged 16.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists on his way to first team All-Big 12 honors this season. The only other K-State players to earn that recognition: Michael Beasley, Jacob Pullen and Rodney McGruder.

As Wade has improved, so have the Wildcats. They are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season after winning 22 games and finishing fourth in the Big 12, facing Creighton in the first round Friday in Charlotte, N.C.

He reached double figures in 20 straight games while shooting 59.2 percent inside the arc and 42.7 percent from three. He averaged 1.14 points per possession, making him the fifth-most efficient scorer in college basketball, according to advanced statistics from Synergy.

Wade’s growing fan club has taken notice. Children write his name on signs and wave them at every home game. Dozens more supporters routinely wait for him outside the Bramlage Coliseum tunnel, hoping for an autograph or a picture with their 6-foot-10 local hero.

No matter how large the crowd gets, he makes time for them all. No way he’s turning away one of those young dreamers. He used to be one of them.

The Kansas City Star college basketball columnists Blair Kerkhoff and Vahe Gregorian break down the 2018 NCAA Tournament bracket shortly after it was revealed on Sunday, March 11, 2018.

Small town, big love

St. John is not a hotbed for college basketball recruits. The farming community of about 1,200 sits 55 miles west of Hutchinson.

ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla once made an on-air joke about Wade’s hometown fans celebrating K-State victories at the local Dairy Queen, but there are no chain restaurants.

There’s not even a stop light.

“It’s rural America,” said Wade’s father, Jay. “When we need something we don’t just hop in the car and go down to the Home Depot. We’re 25 miles away from the nearest Wal-Mart.”

The Wade family moved to St. John from Wichita when Dean was young. They liked it so much they never left. Jay works as a sales representative for Foley Equipment and Wade’s mother, Trish, coaches volleyball and track at the high school.

Dean Wade helped the basketball team win three state championships there before leaving for K-State, and he comes back all the time. There are few things he enjoys more than hunting and fishing with friends and family.

“It’s a small little farming community, but it’s filled with great people who care,” Wade said. “Everyone loves each other. If you go there you really understand what it means to have a family environment. It’s a great little town.”

St. John thinks a lot of him, too.

“There are die-hard KU fans in this town that have bought season tickets to K-State just to keep watching Dean,” Jay Wade said. “They drive to Manhattan for every game and wear purple. It’s a cool connection.”

Finding a gem

K-State basketball coaches have also grown to love St. John, but there was a time they wanted nothing to do with the place.

All of them were hesitant to drive there and watch Wade, even after they heard good reviews about him. When Bruce Weber suggested him as a recruiting target, his assistants played a heated game of rock/paper/scissors to avoid the trip.

“Our volleyball coach (Suzie Fritz) knew his mom, and she told Coach Weber about him,” associate head coach Chris Lowery said. “I know how these things go. Everybody has a friend with a basketball player in the family. When he mentioned him we all said, ‘No, we don’t want to drive to the middle of nowhere on some wild goose chase.’”

Eventually, Weber convinced Lowery to make the drive.

He found a gem.

“I’m definitely glad I went,” Lowery says now. “He was just a high school sophomore at the time, but you could tell he had elite skills. He could shoot threes, he could handle, he could pass. He was doing everything you see him do now, just on a smaller scale. You could tell he had a chance to be special.”

Lowery and the rest of K-State’s coaching staff kept close tabs on Wade over the next few years, but they were hesitant to offer a scholarship.

Though he looked the part of a potential college star, he also played for a Class 2A high school that won most of its games by huge margins. Wade rarely played into the fourth quarter against overmatched competition. How would his skills translate to the Big 12?

Furthermore, the Wildcats needed guards more than they needed forwards in that recruiting cycle. Shouldn’t they be the priority?

A dominant summer AAU run by Wade put those concerns to rest. The next time Wade’s name came up at a recruiting meeting, Weber left no doubt about his interest.

“I want him,” Weber told the room.

With three simple words, both sides came together. Wade wanted to stay in state and his father briefly played football for the Wildcats in the 1980s. He also considered Wichita State and Iowa, but he committed to the Wildcats early into his senior year while on an official visit.

Lowery can’t recall a better scripted recruiting story.

“Dean is the epitome of what a K-State basketball player should be,” Lowery said. “He’s from Kansas and he grew up dreaming of being a K-State Wildcat. What a great story. He is a kid all of our fans should love.”

Breakthrough season

Thing is, it took K-State fans a few years to warm up to Wade.

He arrived at an interesting time. The Wildcats were coming off a disastrous 15-17 season that led to sweeping roster change. Weber dismissed three players and two more chose to transfer. Wade’s freshman year was going to be a rebuilder, and that meant he had to start from Day 1.

That was good and bad.

In practice, Wade looked ready. Former players came in for a scrimmage against the current team and they all left raving about the freshman forward. Jamar Samuels said he could picture Wade playing in the NBA. Not just in the future, either. He already thought he was that good.

Still, making the transition from small-town high school basketball to the rugged Big 12 was not easy. Wade had always been a team-first player who looked to pass before he looked to shoot. But the Wildcats needed him to shoot.

Coaches and teammates begged him to be aggressive. He nailed a game-winning shot at Georgia and dropped 20 points on Oklahoma State that season. He averaged 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds. His talents were obvious. Everyone told him to keep shooting, but it wasn’t that simple.

“There was nothing he couldn’t handle in workouts,” Lowery said. “We put him through stuff he shouldn’t have been able to do. He would hit five straight step-back jumpers, fade-aways, hook shots with both hands. Holy cow, he was good. But he was also extremely unselfish. He doesn’t care about himself or his numbers at all. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s bad.”

The same problem persisted as a sophomore. On his best nights, he could score 20 points. On his worst nights, he could go scoreless. His sophomore stats: 9.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Point guard Kamau Stokes once grew so frustrated with Wade for passing up shots that he slapped him on the chest during a NCAA Tournament loss to Cincinnati and told him to “shoot the (expletive) ball.”

Everything changed this year.

Words like “timid” and “passive” no longer apply to Wade. He has become K-State’s alpha dog, averaging 11.2 shots per game.

“I am actually speechless, because it’s a lot of improvement from last year and his freshman year,” Stokes said. “He is being more vocal this year. He has really taken charge on the court. He can’t be stopped.”

Indeed, Wade played so well this season that he scored 34 points against Iowa State, flirted with a triple-double in the rematch and at one point scored 20 or more points in six straight games.

His coaches used to go nuts over 15 points and 10 rebounds. His reaction to that stat line now: Meh.

“He is very humble, but we talk about how there is nothing wrong with being confident and cocky on the court,” Weber said. “He has developed a little bit of that and the players feed off that. They all tell him, ‘No one can stop you, Dean.’ He has definitely grown as a player.”

K-State fans have warmed up to him and even given him nicknames, like Dean Wolf.

The fan base collectively groaned when he was ruled out of K-State’s last game against Kansas with a left foot injury. But he is expected to recover and play against Creighton on Friday.

No one will need to remind him to shoot when he takes the floor.

Much like the hordes of young Kansas basketball players that currently idolize him, Wade used to dream about playing in games like this.