Kansas State could be a much improved men’s basketball team next season.
That’s important to remember as other teams make coaching changes and some prepare to play in the Sweet 16.
The Wildcats are in one of the most awkward stages of college hoops, good enough to post a winning record, 17-16, but not good enough to have qualified for the NCAA Tournament. When they missed the NIT and said no to other postseason options, the abrupt ending left some wanting more.
K-State fans are understandably frustrated, and they are worried the Big 12 will be tougher in future years now that Brad Underwood, a former K-State player and coach, is at Oklahoma State. It’s also clear TCU means business by hiring Jamie Dixon.
That combination has caused unrest in some circles, and it has put incredible pressure on Bruce Weber to win next season. Even with three years remaining on his contract, it’s make-or-break time.
The stakes are high, and everyone understands them.
Weber is unfazed.
In four years at K-State, he is 79-54 with a Big 12 championship and two trips to the NCAA Tournament. He also has the backing of athletic director John Currie. No one is more frustrated by the program’s recent struggles than Weber, saying he had a lot of sleepless nights the past two seasons. Still, he thinks K-State has laid the foundation for future success.
“The experience that we got this season was obviously very valuable,” Weber said this week. “We had a lot of young guys who got a lot of minutes and learned a lot.”
The Wildcats played well enough to earn a No. 53 ranking from Ken Pomeroy and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, placing ahead of several teams that made the NCAA Tournament and NIT, including Southern California, South Carolina, Colorado and Oregon State. The Wildcats also upset then-No. 1 Oklahoma at Bramlage Coliseum and dominated in nonconference play.
But the rest of the schedule was not forgiving.
K-State lost one close game after another against ranked opponents, finishing eighth in the Big 12 at 5-13, the program’s worst conference record since 2003. K-State’s league record has now dipped in three consecutive seasons. The Wildcats haven’t played beyond the Big 12 Tournament since 2014.
This year’s results made for some interesting record splits.
Big 12: 5-13.
Against teams that missed the NCAA Tournament and NIT: 14-1.
Against NIT teams: 1-0.
Against NCAA Tournament teams: 2-15.
The Wildcats played the nation’s 21st-most difficult schedule, according to RPI numbers. To illustrate just how hard it was, nine of their games came against teams that made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament — Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Iowa State and Texas A&M.
The schedule should be friendlier next season, with seniors Perry Ellis, Buddy Hield and Georges Niang leaving the conference. The Wildcats will also be older.
K-State returns 51.4 points from a team that averaged 71 per game, which ranks near the top of the Big 12, and the playing rotation should be easy to establish.
A healthy Kamau Stokes should start at point guard alongside Barry Brown, Wesley Iwundu, D.J. Johnson and Dean Wade. All five have starting experience, and the Wildcats were 13-8 before losing Stokes to a season-ending knee injury. Maybe 6-foot-5 Xavier Sneed, a four-star recruit from St. Louis, can earn a starting spot. At minimum, he will play a meaningful role off the bench.
Incoming guard Cartier Diarra will need to help Stokes run the offense, and K-State will ask for contributions from forwards who haven’t played at this level before — Dante Williams, Isaiah Maurice, James Love, and possibly another recruit.
K-State only loses two contributors. Someone, perhaps Iwundu, will need to up their game to help replace Justin Edwards, who finished as the team’s leading scorer.
Weber badly needs a go-to scorer to turn to in the clutch. They lacked one this season, and it showed. K-State was 6-11 in games decided by 10 or less points.
Weber says improved three-point shooting (K-State made 30 percent of its threes, ranking 334th nationally out of 351 teams) will be a must. The Wildcats were hapless against zone defenses.
“It is pretty obvious three-point shooting will be important,” Weber said. “We were last in the Big 12. You make three or four of those in the right spots and it could have made a huge difference in our season and we would have been in the NCAA Tournament.
“That will be something we focus on. Guys will be a year older, more confident, and three-point shooting should improve. Dean, Kamau and Barry were our best shooters in practice, and we have added a couple guys who can shoot the basketball.
“Hopefully that, and more competition in practice, will help.”
If everything lines up, K-State will have the look of a potential NCAA Tournament team. Expectations were low this season, but they will return to normal levels next year.
Iwundu earned third-team all-conference honors from the Big 12 coaches and also made the league’s all-defensive team. Brown, Stokes and Wade were three of the top freshmen in the Big 12 and should improve as sophomores.
Brown averaged 8.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, Wade put up 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds and Stokes averaged 9.4 points and 2.7 assists before missing the last 12 games because of a knee injury.
For perspective, here are the numbers the Big 12’s aforementioned best seniors averaged as freshmen.
Ellis: 5.8 points, 3.9 rebounds.
Hield: 7.8 points, 4.2 rebounds.
Niang: 12.1 points, 4.6 rebounds.
Weber is right to say K-State has a strong core group of players returning. Three promising freshmen, plus Iwundu and Johnson, who emerged as a difference-maker, could be a formidable starting lineup.
But making the jump from losing close games to winning close games is difficult. K-State didn’t win back-to-back conference games last season. K-State’s young players rarely strung quality games together. If that doesn’t change, K-State won’t improve.
But the Wildcats did stay positive and play hard until the end as injuries and losses mounted. They think improvement is on the horizon.
It’s up to Weber to guide them there.
“The big thing we need is toughness,” Weber said. “Some of that comes through age and experience, getting stronger and maturing. I think that is important. But I think we also need competitiveness. Some of that will come with more bodies in practice, but we have to make it happen.”
They will get an early start this summer when they play a string of exhibition games in Europe.
“You can see how tough Kansas is,” Weber said at the Big 12 Tournament. “That trip last year (to South Korea), people don’t understand how valuable it was. That competition, they play 13 games, two exhibitions, 11 over there. I’m amazed.
“People say they’re going to wear down, they are going to wear down. Shoot, they seem bouncier and playing harder than ever now, and they played all of the games and had the extra practices.”
Weber can hardly wait to see what his team is capable of in August. The last time he took the Wildcats abroad, a roster once filled with players looking to transfer under Frank Martin grew close playing under Weber in Brazil. They went on to win 27 games and share the 2013 Big 12 championship with Kansas.
Weber hasn’t been able to replicate that success the past three seasons, and he had to hit the reset button a year ago when Marcus Foster and the young core of that team didn’t pan out. Though he has been criticized for the team’s lack of progress, he sees a bright future. He truly believes the Wildcats are on the way up again.
Maybe that’s true. Perhaps it isn’t. We will get our answer next season.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett