Kansas State coach Bruce Weber will tell you he hopes and prays star senior forward Dean Wade will be able to return for the NCAA Tournament. Couldn’t want him back more, really.
But given the unsettling vagueness of Wade’s status because of the “discomfort in his foot” that stranded him in a boot during his team’s Big 12 Tournament game Thursday, Weber rather preferred the idea of K-State playing without him here.
And he had a point.
“Because if we don’t have him next week, I want to have that experience … ,” Weber said in a Sprint Center corridor after the Wildcats fended off TCU 70-61 to set up a semifinal meeting Friday against Iowa State. “Play without him, figure ways out.”
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In Wade’s wake, the configuration Kansas State might be working with in NCAA play started with a slog against TCU, which led by 12 midway through the first half. Some combination of being without Wade and securing a Big 12 co-championship the last time out had left Weber wary of a false start he was unable to ward off.
Senior guard Barry Brown would go as far as saying they “kind of just coasted” early, and for a while it was easy to picture that dud start devolving into a demoralizing loss to a lesser team.
Not the sort of caution light you want headed into NCAA play, especially for an unusually experienced team with designs on a worthy sequel to last season’s Elite Eight run. That sort of early stagnation could cost them dearly in games ahead, starting with the Cyclones.
But this is survive-and-advance time, and that concern was just an afterthought postgame.
Because the Wildcats bristled and fell back on what’s ultimately going to carry them wherever they go, with or without Wade: Defense that’s fourth in the nation in points allowed; sweet chemistry among their guards, good for a couple mesmerizing lobs; contributions across the board (in this case including the return of Cartier Diarra) and a certain resolve best-encapsulated in a pivotal sequence early in the second half.
K-State had trailed from the outset when senior guard Kamau Stokes drove to the hoop with just under 15 minutes left and crunched down on his left side after a foul by R.J. Nembhard.
As he stayed down for long seconds, Weber yelled, “Get your butt up and make free throws.”
Lest he sound like a tyrant, Weber said he had seen Stokes look up and signal that he was all right, so the idea was to make him laugh to help shrug it off. Or something like that. Stokes, doing his best imitation of Weber’s voice, heard it this way: “You’re good, Kam. Get up, get up, get up. Make your free throws.”
One way or another, the expectation was the point when it comes to a tough-minded guy who epitomizes the essence of this team.
“I’m pretty sure he wanted me to get up,” Stokes deadpanned. “Everybody wanted to me to get up. Just had to let the pain wear off a little bit.”
Stokes has become adept at that sort of drill, especially lately. He’s been contending with turf toe for weeks. More recently, he has been dealing with a sinus infection and repeated migraine headaches, including as recently as Wednesday.
When he finally stepped to the line, he hit the first free throw, tying the score at 39-39. He missed the second, but Xavier Sneed rebounded and the unfazed Stokes promptly hit a three that was part of a 17-2 run.
“Broke their spirit a little bit …,” Weber said.
The Frogs did cut a 10-point lead to three several times down the stretch, but K-State stiff-armed them away each time, including for good with Sneed’s three-pointer with just under a minute left.
Weber has spent much of this season stressing the word resilience, and he has seen it play out as much through Stokes as anyone.
“That little guy that keeps getting knocked down,” he said, “and keeps getting up.”
To just find a way to win, which K-State concocted on Thursday from about every angle: 19 points from Sneed; 12 from Brown; 11 from Stokes; 10 from Makol Mawien and a career-high tying eight from Levi Stockard in 11 minutes of play.
Diarra wasn’t exactly sharp in his return after missing eight games with a broken ring finger on his shooting hand, but he played 29 minutes to set a fresh foundation that could be vital for the Wildcats, especially if they’re without Wade.
The victory left K-State 25-7, making for the first time in school history the Wildcats have won that many games in back-to-back seasons.
Now, they’ll have a different sort of challenge ahead with the Cyclones, against whom the Wildcats split the season series but most recently were drubbed 78-64 in Manhattan.
“We kind of got that sick taste in our mouth, and we have to do everything possible and everything necessary in order for us to come out with a victory,” Brown said.
To learn as much as they can about who they are without Wade in case they can’t have him back next week, when the real measure of the season will be at stake. And that signature is less contingent on the return of Wade, who missed most of K-State’s last five games because of a foot injury last year.