The roads cleared and the temperatures rose a bit but still the people mostly stayed home and give them credit for common sense. For their dubiousness.
Kansas State won another basketball game on Wednesday night, this time 67-54 against Gardner-Webb, a team that might be better than you think but not good enough that the difference is material.
You could describe K-State similarly. This is a better team than perception — they should make the NCAA Tournament — but it’s on the Wildcats to make that show to anyone outside the program.
“We’re going to have to go prove it,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We talk about it all the time. Everybody doubts you. I know the media doubts you. (There are) some fans that question you. But we have to go prove it.”
The Wildcats finished their non-conference schedule 11-1, their best start since the 2011-12 season, long enough ago that Frank Martin was the coach. But these are different days, and that’s part of the point. They’ve played the kind of schedule you put together when you’re coaching for your job, which Bruce Weber is, and that’s the rest of the point.
The best win so far is Colorado State, and after that, who knows? Omaha? Washington State? KenPom.com ranks K-State’s schedule 338th out of 351 teams in Division I. The Cats played Maryland to the final buzzer, but if the most encouraging performance is a loss, you are wasting your time looking for anything meaningful.
“I don’t think it’s too much of a change from last year, honestly,” said senior D.J. Johnson. “Around this time, we were 10-2 before conference play. So, one more loss. A loss we shouldn’t have lost, with North Carolina. So not much different.”
Johnson meant that as a show of confidence, but the Wildcats took a dive in conference play, finishing 5-13 and in eighth place. That can’t happen again without consequences.
Eleven non-conference wins will turn into a punchline if they struggle again in Big 12 play, which begins next week against Texas.
At the moment, the projections show this to be a classic power conference NCAA Tournament bubble team.
K-State’s administration, particularly athletic director John Currie, has always been supportive of Weber — through three consecutive drops in the conference standings, a massive roster turnover two years ago, and fading fan confidence.
But if the Wildcats miss the tournament for what would be the third consecutive year under Weber, they are almost certainly looking for a new coach. The last man to miss three straight tournaments here was Jim Wooldridge.
There are things to like about this team. Wesley Iwundu can be one of the better players in the league. Dean Wade’s ceiling is higher, if he can find it in him to believe that. Barry Brown is consistent, Johnson is strong inside, Kamau Stokes can make plays, and Xavier Sneed has intriguing upside.
They’re balanced. Versatile. Seem to enjoy playing together, and play well together. They defend, and move the ball well. They start two seniors, no freshmen, with a nice mix of size and skill-sets.
There is a plausible scenario where K-State finishes third or fourth in the Big 12, and Bruce Weber — a co-conference champion his first year here, and effectively coaching for his job now in his fifth — gains momentum as a coach of the year candidate. K-State lost a lot of close games last year, and if they’re a year better, merely flipping those losses means a significant rise up the standings.
But if K-State looks better than its eighth-place pick in the conference preseason poll — and it does, by the way — the task may have already become more difficult than originally expected.
What looked like a wide open field after Kansas is instead more crowded near the top. No. 4 Baylor is undefeated, with wins over Louisville, Oregon, Michigan State and Xavier. No. 11 West Virginia beat No. 12 Virginia, and Texas Tech and TCU are working on one-loss runs through soft non-conference schedules of their own.
The keys: some combination of Iwundu playing his best, Wade finding a swagger, Johnson providing muscle underneath, and staying healthy enough that Weber doesn’t have to go too far down the bench.
“A lot of people got lucky last year in close games,” Johnson said. “That won’t happen this year.”
That’s more than the bluster of a college kid. There is legitimate optimism, and confidence. Practices are smoother, and harder, than a year ago. They should be the league’s most improved team. And if they aren’t, they will be a much different team next year.