Bruce Weber kept a positive tone with Kansas State basketball players following their first Big 12 loss in more than a month.
Yes, their nine-game winning streak in conference play is over. But the Wildcats are still in first place. Sure, Iowa State got hot from three-point range and won 78-64 on Saturday. But the Wildcats have been terrific on defense in most of their other games. One more thing: sometimes a loss can become a positive.
Weber learned that much when he was coaching at Illinois in 2005 and his team started 29-0. That group badly wanted to go undefeated, but when they lost 65-64 at Ohio State in the final game of the regular season it helped Illinois reset and reach the national championship game.
“I was really sad, because you could have done something that no one else did, but it got our attention,” Weber said. “It was a good thing. It got us re-focused on what we were supposed to be focused on. I don’t want to lose, but it is what it is. Now, do we have the character to get ready on a short turnaround and make the longest Big 12 road trip of the year.”
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Next up for K-State is a Big Monday road game against West Virginia, the last-place team in the conference standings.
The Mountaineers are struggling mightily after a string of injuries and dismissals have decimated their roster. But the Wildcats aren’t exactly at full strength, either. They are unlikely to have star forward Dean Wade, as he recovers from a “soft tissue” injury to his right foot. And they will definitely be without reserve guard Cartier Diarra.
So both teams will be dealing with adversity.
Funny thing is, K-State was in a similar position the last time it faced West Virginia and won a game that sparked its climb to the top of the Big 12 standings.
Many left the Wildcats for dead when they lost their first two conference games and then fell behind West Virginia by 21 at home. But Barry Brown and Mike McGuirl led a furious comeback and K-State won 71-69.
“I don’t think anyone had any doubt that we couldn’t come back,” Wade said, who coincidentally also missed that game with an injury. “It was a great game. The second half was beautiful. We kind of fed off that for the rest of the season and have been playing like that the rest of the Big 12.”
“Coming back against West Virginia was a tough team to beat,” sophomore forward Levi Stockard added. “We hadn’t beaten them. I hadn’t beaten them my whole career. Knowing that we just beat them helped us keep things rolling.”
It was the unexpected turning point of their season, even if Weber didn’t believe that at the time.
“I would be totally shocked, to be honest,” Weber said. “I didn’t think we would win that game. You have got to give Barry and Mike McGuirl, the whole group, a lot of credit for coming to play that second half and fighting it out. It gave us a little boost of energy and then you get Dean back. Things just kind of fell in place.”
Did they ever. K-State turned that victory into nine straight conference victories (the longest Big 12 winning streak in school history) and a spot atop the conference standings.
The Wildcats will need to start a new winning streak to stay there. This team, and its coach, knows what it takes to do exactly that.