Bruce Weber has spent the last year trying to forget about a shocking NCAA Tournament loss to La Salle, but now that March Madness has returned, the Kansas State basketball coach has no choice but to recall the gory details.
The No. 13 Explorers, fresh off a first-round victory over Boise State, came out red hot, making 58.1 percent of their shots on their way to a 44-26 halftime lead. The No. 4 Wildcats fought back in the second half behind a friendly crowd at the Sprint Center, and even took a late lead, but the damage was done. They lost 63-61, and just like that an early exit lingered over an impressive regular season that featured 27 victories and a Big 12 championship.
Weber would normally avoid taking a stroll down this uncomfortable memory lane, but he wants to learn from those mistakes before K-State takes on Kentucky on Friday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“I do not think we respected them as much as we needed to and that was obvious by the way we started the game,” Weber said. “We went into the locker room at halftime and turned it on. You have got to realize that you have to play every game. It does not matter how good you are or what league you are from. If a team gets hot and gets going like La Salle did to us, we were playing in Kansas City and we were on our heels and they were taking it to us ... I just do not know if they got mentally ready to play.”
He expects things to go differently this time around.
At the least, no one on K-State’s roster should get caught overlooking Kentucky, a tradition-rich team loaded with future NBA talent.
“They are very talented,” K-State junior forward Thomas Gipson said. “They are fast, they have size they are skilled. We are going to have to rely on every one with help defense.
Added Weber: “Last year, we were the hunted, the name team. We are the underdog this year and I hope we play like La Salle did last year, with great heart, loose and free and go at them.”
Weber used a similar approach last week at the Big 12 Tournament. Before K-State took on Iowa State in the quarterfinals, he told his players to relax. He didn’t want them to worry about anything other than playing hard.
The plan almost worked, with Iowa State winning 91-85. It was one of K-State’s best offensive games of the season. But it was also one of its worst defensive games.
Weber hopes the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, and the chance to beat the program with the most victories in college basketball history, will bring out the best of K-State’s defense while its offense keeps clicking.
One thing is for sure: the Wildcats will do anything to avoid a repeat of last year’s NCAA Tournament loss.
“We can make a statement that we are still a good team and our play in the Big 12 should help us in this game,” K-State freshman guard Marcus Foster said. “Our confidence level is high. We have beaten a lot of good teams … I am excited to play Kentucky. I would rather go out and play a Kentucky team rather than a team in the low- or mid-majors.”