ANHATTAN, Kan. — M Several Kansas State players heading up the ramp to the interview area at Bramlage Coliseum stopped to greet Lon Kruger. Good luck, keep it going, go get those Hawks, Kruger told Rodney McGruder.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
As Oklahomas coach, Kruger is all crimson and cream, but the purple from his playing and coaching days at K-State stirs when the subject turns to Kansas, the Wildcats opponent on Tuesday in what has shaped up as the first major clash of the Big 12 season. Among league teams, only Kansas and Kansas State are ranked and own perfect Big 12 records.
An opinion on the matchup wasnt offered; the Sooners, who fell to the Wildcats on Saturday, havent met KU this season. But from an alma mater standpoint, Kruger liked what he saw on Saturday.
Its a team thats a year older, a year wiser, and it shows, Kruger said.
Experience always makes a difference, but the less obvious is whats most impressive about these Wildcats.
No coaching transition turbulence.
Bruce Weber walked into a promising situation at Manhattan with four starters returning from a team that won an NCAA Tournament game, and to this point by not making it worse, he has made it better.
Weber had to earn the trust of players who were recruited by, won for and tough-loved by Frank Martin. Any programs personality takes its cue from the coach, and the blue-collar Wildcats were shaped as tough-minded and aggressive.
Weber wasnt that guy (who is?). Oh, hes fiery enough, sometimes animated, but not with an edge. How would K-State respond to the coach who had been discharged at Illinois a month before he was hired in Manhattan, the one replacing the fan favorite?
Players talk about the preseason Brazil trip as a bonding period, and surely it helped. But connectivity issues were evident in early season results. Kansas States talent got it past overwhelmed opponents, but games against Michigan and Gonzaga told another story.
The Wildcats buy-in to Webers ideals the motion offense heavy on screen-setting to produce spacing and driving lanes, and an emphasis on help defense remained a work in progress. K-State fell apart in the second half in both losses.
But when you take over a program, a key is staying the course and being consistent with your ideas, said Kruger, who, unlike Weber, has taken on mostly makeover projects in his five job moves. Still, what helps the most is winning.
Winning provides confirmation, and on Dec. 22 in Kansas City, the Wildcats changed their seasons narrative.
Florida, with its No. 8 ranking, arrived at Sprint Center, and things started well for Kansas State. But early in the second half, the Gators had roared back from a double-digit deficit and tied the game with 13 minutes remaining.
The critical juncture of the season had arrived. Would this one go the way of the others, a meltdown and proof the Wildcats are incapable of measuring up against some of the nations best? Or would K-State make a stand?
You know what happened. In about seven minutes, Kansas State had restored its double-digit lead and went on to the statement triumph.
It showed it if we do it this way we can be pretty good, Weber said.
Turns out, what Weber wants from these Wildcats isnt much different than what Martin demanded. Kruger said after Saturdays loss he didnt notice much change between Martins and Webers Wildcats, except the outcome. The Sooners swept Kansas State last year.
Statistically, the Wildcats are scoring a bucket less per game than in 2012, but opponents are scoring about seven less. Shooting percentages are about the same, and the rebounding totals are slightly higher this year. And if theres a little surprise, its that Kansas State grabs one more offensive board per game than a year ago.
This is not a team of stars, and Weber acknowledges as much. We dont have somebody who can just take people off the dribble and just go make plays, he said. But I think weve helped them with skill development, by spacing, movement, cutting, learning to read things. Weve made some good progress.
Win Tuesday and the progress takes on a new expectation a first Big 12 championship.