Expectations are a hot topic before the start of every basketball season, but Wesley Iwundu wants no part of the discussion.
The Kansas State junior wing watched in horror last year as many of his teammates proclaimed the Wildcats to be Big 12 championship contenders with Final Four talent before playing in a single game together. That roster could not back up its talk and limped to a 15-17 record, its worst season in a decade.
This time around Iwundu, one of five returning scholarship players, is expected to lead a young roster into uncharted waters. And all he can say about expectations is that K-State doesn’t have any.
“We are the underdogs,” Iwundu said. “All year, that is what drives us to go out there and play hard and perform. Everyone takes things serious this year. There is nothing going on outside of the court or off the court. Everything is more mature.”
Seniors Justin Edwards, Stephen Hurt and Brian Rohleder will help Iwundu in the leadership department, as well as junior forward D.J. Johnson, finally healthy after 16 months of rehabilitation with a broken foot. There is no other choice.
It will take some time before K-State fans recognize the rest of the roster. Carlbe Ervin, Kamau Stokes, Ron Freeman and Barry Brown are new guards. Isaiah Maurice, Dante Williams and Dean Wade are all new inside. All that turnover has many picking the Wildcats to finish near the bottom of the conference standings.
Not even coach Bruce Weber knows what to expect. He said Ervin and Williams have both been sidelined with injuries, making preseason practices, which begin Friday, that much more important. All he can say for sure is that the majority will play meaningful minutes.
“We have a lot of inexperience,” Weber said. “That’s one thing where you just have to throw them into the fire.”
So far, Edwards likes what he sees.
“Guys this year want it a bit more than they did last year,” said Edwards, adding he expects this group to make the NCAA Tournament. “Players are working harder. They are listening to coaches a lot more. It seems like everyone is taking things more seriously.”
Like Iwundu, Weber doesn’t have any bold predictions. He enjoys coaching this group, saying it will be a better team than he coached a year ago. But he admits the talent level may have dropped.
His hope is that team chemistry will help. This group has so much of that, he illustrated it with a Winnie the Pooh reference.
“We have removed ourselves from last year since the summer. They have been a good group to deal with. We aren’t fighting or having little issues every day,” Weber said. “I always talk about Tigger and Eeyore. We got some Tiggers. Eeyores are no fun to coach or be friends with and we have guys happy, bouncing around, flying around, enjoying it. Now, can they keep that same energy and same excitement when things get a little tougher here? We will see.
“That is one (reference) I like, because they are so extreme. I always ask them, ‘Do you want to hang around with Eeyore? Or do you want to hang around with Tigger? I don’t know if you can deal with Tigger all the time, but you sure don’t want to hang around Eeyore, some negative grumpy guy. You want excitement and happiness. That is the fun of coaching when guys come in and they are happy and they are excited and they want to practice and want to get better.”
None of that guarantees a successful season, but it beats the alternative.
“I am definitely done with last year,” Iwundu said. “That one is for the books. It is a brand-new year, and I am ready to get the season going.”