If this is how Kansas State always played, there would never have been a question about the NCAA Tournament or Bruce Weber’s further employment.
That is both the joy and the frustration of college basketball, and this time of year in particular, when seasons and sometimes careers are decided in 40-minute chunks. K-State played what two players called its best game of the year Thursday, beating the bigger and more talented Baylor Bears for the second time this season, a 70-64 win in a Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal probably locking it into the NCAA Tournament.
“I would be very disappointed with our league, and how good it is,” Weber said, referring to the possibility of K-State being left out. “I hope people nationwide today saw it’s pretty good.”
K-State probably played its way to the safe side of the bubble, but the questions won’t completely stop.
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The questions about K-State’s worthiness for the NCAA Tournament will hush if the Wildcats beat West Virginia in the second semifinal on Friday night, but the questions about Weber’s future won’t fully go away until an administration in transition makes a statement or unless the team makes it obvious this week and next.
That’s probably silly — five years of work and recruiting and coaching and screaming and pushing effectively resting on a subjective decision by strangers on the tournament selection committee — but sports are nothing without keeping score.
So if this was the moment that K-State did, indeed, push its way into the tournament field and secure Weber’s job then you don’t have to look far for the symbolism.
All season, he’s thought a lack of depth could be his team’s greatest flaw, and here his top three reserves played what is likely their best collective game of the season. Carlbe Ervin, Isaiah Maurice and Xavier Sneed combined for 19 points on 13 shots, with six rebounds and just one turnover.
Ervin — and if you didn’t see the game, we take no offense if you think this is a typo — rushed in from the right side for a dunk that Baylor 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil didn’t challenge at the rim. After the game, some 30 minutes or so in real time, they were still laughing about this in the locker room.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him dunk, to be honest,” Weber said.
The coach had also worried about his team’s defense. K-State was so bad offensively last year that the vast majority of practice time — particularly early — was devoted to sets and fundamentals. The improvement was obvious, but at times it looked as if the Wildcats weakened on defense.
This, then, could’ve been their toughest game of the season — highlighted most obviously by Barry Brown and Ervin, each 6-foot-3, blocking 6-foot-5 Ish Wainwright at the rim twice in a span of a few minutes.
“We just have to keep moving forward,” guard Kamau Stokes said.
Weber has taken to drawing a one-game bracket on the whiteboard before recent games, an attempt to emphasize the importance of this final stretch. He’ll write “KSU” on one line, that day’s opponent on the other, then point to the winner’s spot and ask, “How bad do you want it?”
He tells them to look around, that if they see anyone they care about, to work hard and win for that friend. These are all old coaches’ tricks, and in the cold black-and-white of a newspaper or computer screen probably read a bit hokey, but none of that is the point. None of that matters. What matters is whether his players believe, or respond, and these last few weeks they’ve done both.
“What job security?” senior Wesley Iwundu said. “We’re winning games, moving forward. I’m all-in for coach Weber.”
That comes through. They do seem to believe in Weber, and want to win for him, as well as themselves. If they didn’t, it’s hard to imagine them following a blowout loss to Oklahoma with what is now three straight wins and a push back into the tournament conversation.
One win does not fix all that’s wrong. It doesn’t erase a 2-8 stretch of the conference schedule, or repair Weber’s job approval among many K-State fans.
He will remain largely unpopular, working at a university cheered by many who want him to fail individually. Working through that will be complicated, difficult, and perhaps ultimately impossible.
But moments like this help. They have to. Because even for all of the justified and fair defenses of Weber, nothing works like providing a team that goes hard and enjoys each other and most importantly wins.
This is what it looks like on the good days. There haven’t been enough of those at K-State, particularly these last three seasons. But there have been more the last two weeks.