Things have not been easy for Kansas State sophomore guard Marcus Foster since he was suspended three games for violating unspecified team rules in early February.
Foster has been in and out of the starting lineup, his playing time has dropped and his production has slipped. He is in a slump.
But he thinks the hard times are coming to an end. He has thought that way since he scored 15 points in K-State’s last game, a 62-49 loss to Texas on Saturday.
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“I am getting more comfortable,” Foster said. “It was the first game coming back from the suspension that I was comfortable and able to play my game a little bit. My shot wasn’t falling, but I was definitely satisfied with how I played.”
Foster has not been able to say that often during the last month and a half. He failed to score more than eight points in four of his last five games and his scoring average dipped to 12.9 after peaking at 16.2 in November.
Things got so frustrating that K-State coach Bruce Weber banned him from speaking with the media until Monday, when Foster told reporters he was no longer worried about offense, his mind was right and he was committed to finishing his college career with the Wildcats.
“I went out there and just tried to win, because I knew we needed that win,” Foster said of his effort at Texas. “We didn’t get it, but that is something I am going to take into our other games. I am going to be engaged and play hard.”
Foster’s confidence is returning at an ideal time.
The Wildcats need him in top form at the Big 12 Tournament. This is their last opportunity to salvage an up-and-down season that has featured five victories against ranked teams along with humiliating losses. At 15-16, they need two wins to feel good about a NIT berth. And their only hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament for a sixth straight season is to win the tournament trophy at the Sprint Center.
“If we want to take the next step,” senior forward Thomas Gipson said, “we have to go there expecting to win the whole thing.”
Foster added: “Honestly, I think we can win the whole tournament.”
The Wildcats certainly have wild-card potential, perhaps more than any No. 8 seed in the tournament’s history. K-State was 5-3 against the top four seeds this season and tends to play well at the Sprint Center.
Yet TCU, the Wildcats’ opening opponent at 6 p.m. Wednesday, crushed K-State 69-55 in their last meeting. And K-State has only won three games outside of Bramlage Coliseum this season.
“For the guys,” Weber said, “it is a chance to get that last chance to show people what we could have been and should have been and are at times. It’s still not going to be easy. TCU is very tough.”
K-State will also have to do something no team in Big 12 Tournament history has done to claim a championship — win four games in four days. All of the Big 12’s past 18 champions were seeded no lower than fourth and had to win three games.
No. 8 seeds, in particular, have struggled. They are 9-18, with one team advancing to the semifinals.
“We just have to put it all together for a four-day span,” Weber said.
Weber nearly did exactly that with Illinois at the Big Ten Tournament. In 2008, he guided a team that won 13 games in the regular season to victories over Penn State, Purdue and Minnesota at the league tournament. That set up a winner-take-all game against Wisconsin in the final, but the Illini lost 61-48.
“The last game was the toughest,” Weber said. “You hope they can come together and have that adrenaline and energy. You saw Georgia do it a couple of years ago. They played two games on the last day. It is possible. It’s not an easy thing, but it is possible.”
K-State players have complained of fatigue throughout the season, and barely put up a fight on the final day of the Maui Invitational, a 70-47 loss to Pittsburgh. So depth and energy could pose problems in later rounds. But they also beat Purdue 88-79 and challenged No. 5 Arizona in the first two games of that tournament.
Foster scored 23 points against Arizona. It was one of his best games of the season. Arizona won 72-68, but Foster was upbeat afterward. If K-State continued to play that well, he said, it would be “the talk of the nation.”
Things didn’t play out that way. This is the team’s last shot at redemption.
“We believe we are one of the top teams, still,” Foster said. “Even though we are eighth, we believe we can go out there and win the tournament. We believe it is a new season for us. We have to treat it like we are 0-0 and we have to go out and win the first game. After that, the rest will take care of itself.”