K-State loss should hurt, but program is headed in right direction

03/13/2014 5:02 PM

03/13/2014 9:30 PM

The second season of Bruce Weber’s time at Kansas State is limping toward the finish. This makes five losses in eight games since the Wildcats’ season hit its peak with a court-storming against Kansas, and even with the occasional flash it is hard to imagine them getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Which is just fine.

Already, a key season for K-State’s program with its still-new coach can be officially considered a success, no matter a 91-85 loss to Iowa State on Thursday that makes for a one-and-done Big 12 tournament.

“I feel good about next week,” Weber says. “I feel good about the future of the program.”

K-State has missed some opportunities. The loss to Iowa State came when K-State’s best player (Marcus Foster) sat for all but 8 minutes of the second half because of foul trouble, and when senior Shane Southwell went tunnel vision (his words) on the game’s biggest possession, turning it over instead of kicking it out to Nigel Johnson for a wide-open jumper.

So there is no celebrating after a loss, especially this one, but the transition into the NCAA Tournament is a good time to recognize the more important truth about the Wildcats — they are

still

a lock for the NCAA Tournament in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for a program that has long struggled for sustained success.

Seven wins over RPI top-50 teams this year and help coming next year that directly addresses the team’s biggest flaws mean this is a good time to root for K-State basketball.

Think of it like this: K-State is playing out its worst season in five years, and it still should be a No. 8 or 9 seed when the brackets are made Sunday, with every reason to believe the program will steadily grow from here.

So as easy as it is to criticize a team for not winning enough close games, or Southwell for his misread on that key late play, K-State is now the kind of program that finishes bad years in the NCAA Tournament.

For all the reasons to gripe — sticky offense, turning into the Wooldridge years on the road and a late fade that now counts three consecutive losses — the program is in better shape than reasonable people would have imagined before the season.

That’s true both in the

now

(few expected this to be an NCAA Tournament team, especially after a season-opening loss to Northern Colorado at home) and the future.

Will Spradling was the only K-State senior to start Thursday, and Southwell was the only other senior among the Wildcats’ top eight scorers. Weber still hasn’t shaken questions about whether he can win with his own players, but he presented a good self-defense this season.

Foster is a former three-star recruit who signed to play for Weber and has put together the program’s best season for a freshman since Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. K-State has also leaned heavily on freshmen Wesley Iwundu (a promising talent who needs more strength and consistent effort), Nigel Johnson (who put in 17 on nine shots against Iowa State) and Jevon Thomas (who brings an element of quickness the program has lacked since Denis Clemente).

For next year, those around the program are especially high on Justin Edwards (who led the America East in scoring before transferring from Maine), as well as incoming freshman Tre Harris and junior-college transfer Stephen Hurt.

The Wildcats have every right to be disappointed. Since the beginning of the conference season, four of their losses came in the final few minutes or overtime. Points are too often like hidden treasures for this team, but on Thursday they shot 55 percent and made eight three-pointers and scored their most points in regulation since Dec. 1 ... and

still

lost.

This one hurts, and it should.

But the more important point is that two years in, Weber has a conference title, another NCAA Tournament bid out of spare parts and every indication that there will be less pain in the future