If the trend continues, this might be Bruce Weber’s last season at Kansas State.
Weber’s first season in Manhattan resulted in the Wildcats’ sharing the Big 12 title with rival Kansas – the school’s first conference title since 2013. But over the next three seasons, K-State’s Big 12 record has been slip-sliding away.
The Big 12 coaches have pegged the Wildcats to finish ninth in the league this season. If that prediction turns out accurate, it figures the heat will rise on Weber. There’s already angst among the Purple People after Oklahoma State hired Brad Underwood – a former K-State assistant and Kansas native who is considered a rising star in the coaching ranks.
Against that background, the Wildcats are defiant about proving the prediction incorrect.
“Everybody has their opinions, and my opinion is we’re nowhere close to being a ninth-place team,” said senior guard Wesley Iwundu. “We should be very competitive in the league this year. It should be a very big motivational factor for us, being picked ninth.
“I know these guys, I know our team this year and I’ve got a pretty good feeling. Ninth place, I don’t see it at all. It won’t be easy, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re willing to accept the challenge.”
K-State, which finished 17-16 overall and 5-13 in the Big 12 last season, returns 72 percent of its scoring, 71 percent of its rebounding and 74 percent of its assists. While top scorer Justin Edwards exhausted his eligibility, five of the top six scorers return.
“If we’re going to be really good, who is going to be eight and nine (players in the rotation),” said Weber, whose 79 victories are third-most by a K-State coach in his first four seasons. “Are they going to be productive and give us something every game?”
Guard Kamau Stokes, who started 20 of the first 21 games last season as a freshman before being sidelined by a knee injury, is back. Xavier Sneed, a 6-foot-5 freshman, is a top recruit who could be one of those players who could contribute in the playing rotation.
“Hopefully there’s a little chip on the shoulder,” Weber said of the ninth place selection. “Not only because of that, but just making the step last year to win some of those close games that would have made a difference and put us in the NCAA Tournament.”
Kansas State at a glance
Coach: Bruce Weber.
Last season: 17-16 overall, 5-13 in Big 12, eighth.
NCAA Tournament: Did not qualify.
Key departures: G Justin Edwards, F Stephen Hurt.
Starters returning: 6-foot-7 Sr. F/G Wesley Iwundu, 6-foot-10 Soph. F Dean Wade, 6-foot Soph. G Kamau Stokes.
Top returnees: 6-foot-9 Sr. F D.J. Johnson, 6-foot-3 Sr. G Carlbe Ervin Jr., 6-foot-3 Soph. G Barry Brown, 6-foot-6 Sr. F Austin Budke.
Newcomers: 6-foot-5 Fr. F Xavier Sneed, 7-foot Fr. F Dante Williams, 6-foot-10 Fr. F Isaiah Maurice, 6-foot-6 Fr. F Pierson McAtee.
Iwundu has been a starter or top reserve in his first three seasons. He’s an outstanding defensive player who spent the off-season refining his shot. If he can score from the perimeter, he’ll be hard to guard. Stokes’ return could be a huge factor. The loss of Cartier Diarra, a 6-foot-4 freshmen who suffered a knee injury over the summer, cost the Wildcats an athletic defender who figured to be part of the back court rotation.
Wade had a solid freshman season but suffered the typical woes of lost confidence and shooting touch. His continued improvement will go a long way in deciding if Kansas State moves up in the standings. Senior D.J. Johnson can be a beast in the low post and he hopes to avoid the foul trouble and fatigue that cost him minutes last season.
Much to be determined here. As Weber mentioned, the success of this season will depend on the top reserves producing when they’re on the court. Three players who redshirted last season – Isaiah Maurice, Dante Williams and Pierson McAtee – have had a year in Weber’s system.
Kansas State was 0-3 in overtime games and lost twice to Texas by a total of four points. Turn those losses into wins and the Wildcats would have been 10-8 and a likely NCAA Tournament team. The question this season is if K-State’s blue collar talent can improve enough to move up in what figures to be a much-tougher middle of the pack.