The day started with first-class travel and ended with autographs.
Kansas State’s rushed journey to Dayton Arena, where it will face Wake Forest at 8:10 p.m. Tuesday in the play-in round of the NCAA Tournament known as the First Four, was both eventful and enjoyable.
“It feels like we are in the NBA,” senior guard Carlbe Ervin said. “We are traveling first class and if you win you get a quick turnaround again. It’s really cool.”
Best of all: This all seemed impossible three weeks ago.
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K-State, you may remember, appeared to hit rock bottom on Feb. 25 when it suffered an 81-51 loss to Oklahoma, a team that won just 11 games. The blowout loss felt like crushing blow, as it dropped the Wildcats to 17-12 and 6-10 in the Big 12. A late run to the NCAA Tournament seemed improbable at best, and debates raged about Weber’s job security.
Everyone wearing purple took the loss hard. Weber snapped at reporters when asked about mounting fan criticism and players refused to speak with media.
“It was a complete embarrassment,” sophomore guard Barry Brown said.
Indeed, a once-promising season was doomed. At least that’s how it looked on the outside.
On the inside, optimism was brewing. The Wildcats just didn’t know it yet. Against all odds, they came together after that loss.
It started with a meeting in the locker room. Weber didn’t say much. Instead, he turned the floor over to his players, asking them to voice their opinions on what needed improvement. The conversations continued on the way out of the stadium and lingered on the team bus.
“We just had a heart to heart on the bus ride home,” senior Carlbe Ervin said. “Everybody needed to get in the gym more, everybody needed to focus on basketball more, everybody needed to tone out the critics and everyone else who talks about them and this team. We found a renewed focus toward this team and our goals.”
By the time they arrived home, they felt as if the OU loss never happened.
“It was definitely beneficial,” sophomore guard Kamau Stokes said. “We talked about how bad we wanted it. That was the main thing in that meeting. We threw that loss over our shoulder and started to focus on the next thing.”
That focus turned into victories.
K-State bounced back with a 75-74 victory at TCU four days later and backed it up with a 61-48 win over Texas Tech. Then, with its NCAA hopes on the line, it upset Baylor 70-64 in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament. A day later, it fell one point shy against West Virginia.
“It says a lot about them,” Weber said. “Their character, their desire, their determination, their togetherness … I’m proud of them. I’ve said it many times.”
The biggest change: They found an edge.
“We started having a win-or-go-home mentality,” senior wing Wesley Iwundu said. “That changed a lot. For us as seniors, we didn’t want to be done yet. The team has fed off that pretty well. The younger guys have all gotten on board with us. They know what this meant to us and they played like it.
“I really give credit to those guys. They are playing great right now.”
Quite the turnaround from the Oklahoma loss, in which they couldn’t have played worse. Or let distractions rattle them more.
Before the meltdown in Norman, every criticism hurt like a dislocated finger. When fans booed Weber or held up signs that read “FIRE BRUCE” at games, the Wildcats noticed. When bracket experts moved K-State out of their projections, the Wildcats panicked.
That stress became too much for them to bear and it showed during a miserable effort against the Sooners, which went down as K-State’s most lopsided defeat since 2006 and their eighth loss in 10 games.
Ever since, players have turned criticism into motivation.
Ervin has gone so far as to describe the Wildcats as “the most hated team in the league, the most hated team in the nation, throughout all of college basketball.” This is hyperbole, of course. Yes, questionable calls cost K-State late in losses against Texas Tech and Kansas. Yes, Big 12 coaches picked K-State to finish ninth. But Ervin mostly says these things for inspiration.
Much like his teammates, he plays better when has something to prove.
The Wildcats have proven a lot in the past three weeks.
“That loss really woke us up,” Brown said. “We have been playing our best basketball ever since. If we played this way all season, we wouldn’t have even been on the bubble. We would have been a really good seed in this tournament. We just want to keep playing this way.”
Kansas State vs. Wake Forest
WHEN/WHERE: About 8:10 p.m. Tuesday at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio
TV/RADIO: TruTv; WHB (810 AM)
P No. Kansas State Ht. Yr. PPG
F 25 Wesley Iwundu 6-7 Sr. 12.5
F 32 Dean Wade 6-10 So. 9.4
F 4 D.J. Johnson 6-9 Sr. 11.2
G 5 Barry Brown 6-3 So. 11.7
G 3 Kamau Stokes 6-0 So. 11.6
P No. Wake Forest Ht. Yr. PPG
F 34 Austin Arians 6-6 Sr. 8.3
F 44 Dinos Mitoglou 6-10 Jr. 9.0
C 20 John Collins 6-10 So. 18.9
G 1 Keyshawn Woods 6-3 So. 12.8
G 13 Bryant Crawford 6-3 So. 16.1
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett