Kansas State University

Bruce Weber and Kansas State look like ideal long-term fit

Updated: 2014-01-18T18:14:42Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

Bruce Weber and Kansas State have each found, finally, the perfect fit. This is decades in the making, for both the underappreciated coach and the often overlooked men’s basketball program.

The wider understanding of this will be one of the most lasting effects from what is shaping into a thrilling local season.

Weber is at a place, finally, that will allow him to build a program that fits his personality and skill-set and that will grow to appreciate him for who he is rather than judge him for who he is not.

K-State, finally, has a coach specifically equipped to navigate the program’s shortcomings and maximize its strengths, a man who won’t promote himself above his team or see Manhattan as a nice enough place to wait for something better to come along.

“I’ll be honest,” Weber says. “I hope I retire here.”

That would be good for both sides, and this is something that Kansas State fans will continue to see as time goes on. This will be the job that defines Weber, who has a real chance to bring the kind of stable success that K-State basketball has lacked for decades.

He already won a share of the school’s first conference basketball title since 1977, and this year is waging something of a direct assault on the yeah-but-wait-’til-he-has-to-do-it-with-his-own-players rap created during his tenure at Illinois.

The Wildcats are 13-4 and had rebounded from a season-opening home loss to Northern Colorado into the Top 25 before a blowout loss at Kansas last weekend.

As it stands, K-State is 3-1 in the Big 12 heading into Saturday’s game against West Virginia. That puts KSU in second place in the conference, tied with Oklahoma State, which it beat in the league opener.

And the most encouraging part is that K-State’s best player and leading scorer is a freshman — former three-star recruit Marcus Foster — who represents so much of how Weber hopes to build this program.

“I’ve always been overlooked,” Foster says. “I wasn’t heavily recruited by Kentucky or Duke. He found me at an AAU tournament, and he was there for another recruit, a bigger recruit. The true coaches, they find players. They find those guys. Those are the real coaches to me.”

It’s not just Foster, who is averaging a team-high 13.9 points around some of the rough edges you expect from talented freshmen. Point guard Jevon Thomas — who picked K-State over Dayton, Penn State, Seton Hall and Towson — has energized the team since becoming eligible after the first semester and provides an element of speed the program hasn’t had since Denis Clemente.

Also, freshman Wesley Iwundu has shown flashes. Same with Nigel Johnson. For next year, Weber has commitments from a pair of three-star recruits, including 6-foot-10 Stephen Hurt from Florida. These are long-term college players, too, the kind who usually play four years, the kind Weber has always been most effective with.

The point here is that Weber is building something at K-State, and he’s doing it in a way that will be appreciated more as time goes on.

Former K-State coach Frank Martin has a lot of strengths, but there was always an expiration date on him in Manhattan. He was able to bring some national attention to K-State, and that felt good for a little while, but the story was always about Martin. It was never really about K-State.

That’s all so different with Weber in charge.

Another difference: Weber is a better coach of offense, a slow start this year notwithstanding.

“(My teammates) say Frank was very, like, tough and heavy on defense,” Foster says. “But they say the reason they weren’t more successful is they didn’t have a good offensive scheme. Coach Weber, he brought some of that good offense with him and that’s why they were better last year.”

That’s less true this season than last. The Wildcats have scored 63 or fewer in each of their four losses, and rank 172nd in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency. But the point remains in the long-term — with most of the same nucleus, K-State went from 58th in offense Martin’s last year to 15th in Weber’s first year — as does a more critical fact:

K-State basketball is in better hands with Weber than it was with Martin, which means it’s in better hands with Weber than it’s been since Lon Kruger.

Again, this will be more understood in a year than it is now, and even more understood five years after that. K-State built a beautiful, $18 million practice facility, which will help take the edge off the program’s biggest shortcoming.

“It’s not the easiest place to recruit to,” Weber says. “I think everyone knows that.”

But beyond all of that, after decades of bad hires and then the Huggins-Beasley-Martin experiment, K-State has a coach worthy of its strengths (loyalty and support) and comfortable working around the weaknesses (recruiting, mostly).

Weber was raised as a coach at Purdue, helping Gene Keady keep the Boilermakers in the national conversation for 25 years in the shadow of Bob Knight’s Hoosiers and, for a while at least, Digger Phelps’ Notre Dame. He won a league title and made the Sweet 16 at Southern Illinois with three starters who had no other scholarship offers. And he never could make people forget about Bill Self at Illinois, but he did win two league titles and make a Final Four and six NCAA Tournaments in nine years there.

All of which makes his hire in Manhattan — which was largely greeted with disappointment or apathy by K-State fans — the kind that will look better and better as time goes by.

Look at that experience. He was built for this job. He spent the bulk of his adult life pushing the land-grant school with the high-profile in-state rival, then built a smaller program with no real history into a winner by identifying talent that others missed. Even though his time at Illinois didn’t end well, he is the coach of the most successful season in school history.

People around Weber say he feels a freedom now that he always wanted at Illinois. He can pursue the kinds of players that best fit his system, instead of chasing Chicago kids based on fan pressure and recruiting-service rankings.

Weber wants to sign intense players with an innate toughness and athleticism, then teach them. You can see that in the guys he has brought to Manhattan. You’ll see more of it in the coming years.

This is what happens when coach and program are so perfectly matched.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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