Bob Lutz

K-State looking to rediscover its mojo

Bruce Weber’s Big 12 wins total has fallen each year since his first season at K-State. The Wildcats are picked to finish eighth this season.
Bruce Weber’s Big 12 wins total has fallen each year since his first season at K-State. The Wildcats are picked to finish eighth this season. The Wichita Eagle

There was a 55-year stretch when the following men worked the sideline as Kansas State’s basketball coach:

Jack Gardner, Tex Winter, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, Dana Altman.

Gardner is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Kruger is likely to join him there someday. And the careers of Winter (College Basketball Hall), Fitzsimmons, Hartman and Altman make them worthy candidates, to varying degrees.

Anyone who views Kansas State as KU’s little basketball brother is only paying attention to a relatively short period of history. A profound one, indeed. But short.

K-State obviously hasn’t been keeping up with the Jayhawks all that well of late. It started with a slippage under Altman, who hadn’t yet found the coaching wings he was to come upon later at Creighton and now at Oregon.

Tom Asbury and Jim Wooldridge coached the Wildcats for 12 seasons from 1994 to 2006. Both had losing records amidst grim times for K-State basketball

Then Bob Huggins came along, brought Michael Beasley and Frank Martin with him, and the Cats began to claw again. Huggins left after only one season to return to his alma mater, West Virginia, but Martin remained to coach K-State for five 20-plus win seasons.

The past, except for a few blotches, has been pretty good to Kansas State.

It’s the present we’re not quite sure about. And, of course, the future.

Bruce Weber is about to begin his fifth season at K-State. The first was magical – a 27-8 record and a tie for first in the Big 12 with Kansas.

But from 14-4 in the conference, the Cats slipped to 10-8. Then to 8-10. Last season, K-State was 5-13, good for eighth place.

Weber faces a big season. There are still many who doubt his ability to turn the Wildcats into conference contenders. And who doubt whether Kansas State can be a consistent threat with Weber as coach.

Those doubts are valid.

Still, I’m surprised to see K-State picked to finish ninth in the Big 12’s preseason coaches poll, ahead of only TCU.

If that happens, I’ll be surprised and Weber will likely be headed to the unemployment line.

In fact, I have K-State as a bubble NCAA Tournament team because of the Wildcats’ returning experience and a good looking group of newcomers.

K-State beat Oklahoma last season at Bramlage Coliseum and lost in triple-overtime at Oklahoma State and in double-overtime at Baylor and at home against West Virginia. The Wildcats also lost twice to Texas by a total of four points.

A team that can start Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes, Wesley Iwundu, Dean Wade and D.J. Johnson – with Carlbe Ervin II, Isaiah Maurice and Xavier Sneed off the bench – should improve to at least nine conference wins.

K-State has won only five of its past 55 games against Kansas and went through a stretch of 11 seasons – 1995 through 2005 – without beating the Jayhawks.

The Wildcats haven’t won two games in a season against KU since 1989, but are 3-11 in the series since 2010-11. It’s not much, obviously, but it’s better than it was.

It’s not that K-State has to gain the upper hand on Kansas. Nobody in the Big 12 has come close to doing that.

It would serve the Wildcats and Weber well, though, to consistently become more competitive against their biggest rival.

How realistic is it, though, to think Weber can make great inroads against Self?

Probably not very, although Weber’s 2-8 record against the Jayhawks is a tad better than the 2-9 mark Martin had against KU.

K-State has become football-centric over the past 25 seasons under Bill Snyder, making the overall slip in basketball less noticeable. Or at least more tolerable.

Snyder has cast a wide shadow and is still going strong at 77. Most of the conjecture at K-State is about how long Snyder will continue to coach, not about how the Wildcats can regain their stature as a basketball blue blood.

After missing the NCAA Tournament for 11 straight seasons from 1997 through 2007, K-State made it to the tournament four times during Martin’s five seasons and again in Weber’s first two years.

The Wildcats have been left out the past two seasons, though, and haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2011-12.

Can Weber, 60, succeed in turning around fortunes that have turned down under his guidance?

From 27-8 to back-to-back seasons of 15-17 and 17-16 don’t do much to build confidence. Weber has been unable to sustain the success built by Martin. Several good players, including Marcus Foster (Creighton), have left the program.

K-State is not without promise. I’m picking the Wildcats to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, perhaps against my better judgment.

I have the same reservations about Weber as many. I’m not sure I see K-State doing more than spinning its wheels while he’s the coach.

But his chapter as K-State basketball coach is still being written. There remains a chance for a happy ending.