The most important question comes as Bruce Weber walks toward the last locker room of this Kansas State basketball season. It’s quiet in there. An ending for all of them, at least in some ways.
Much of this season — this promising, inconsistent, maddening, back-from-the-ditch season — was spent wondering if this would be Weber’s ending, too. He has just two years left on his contract. Many fans have wanted him fired. The athletic director and school president who hired him are both gone. The search for a permanent AD continues.
So, the question: Are you 100 percent sure you want to be back, and have you been told you’ll be back?
“Oh, no one’s ever told me anything,” he said. “I don’t know anything. But I like K-State. My wife loves it here. We’ve got a good group.”
Weber’s fifth season at K-State ended with a 75-61 loss to Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. The Wildcats lost to a better team, but that doesn’t make it easier for anyone.
Cincinnati was bigger, tougher, quicker and made far more shots. There was not one moment when it felt like K-State would win, and precious few where it felt like the Wildcats could.
If we can take away the momentary extremes on each side — an appearance in the national polls in early January, and a horrendous blowout loss to Oklahoma in February — this is always how it felt like this season would end.
In most ways, this season became a trial for Weber’s ability as a coach and worth to the university. It is no secret that his relationship with fans needs help, and this season isn’t going to convince those who’ve already made up their mind about him.
The Wildcats were picked next-to-last in the Big 12 but finished sixth. They made the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Weber’s five seasons, and won what was effectively a play-in game against Wake Forest.
But it’s also true that from the outside, it can feel like Weber’s program is fighting to reach a low ceiling. That the successes will be muted, and difficult, and that the dips will feel like quicksand.
He has said he wants to retire at K-State. That would be nice for all parties, because it would mean he’d achieved more success.
“I love K-State,” he said. “It’s been such a good place. Good people. It’s a great place to live, so many positive things. We need a couple more players, and we need a commitment to it. But I can’t feel prouder about being part of the program.”
Inside that locker room, in the moments immediately after the loss, the sound of another team’s opportunity seeped through the back wall as the guys on this side adjusted to their new and quieter reality.
“They played harder than us, you know?” said point guard Kamau Stokes. “They played harder than us.”
K-State lost for so many reasons. Wesley Iwundu was terrific, again, with 19 points on 10 shots and energy on both ends of the floor. But he spent most of the game in foul trouble and didn’t get enough help.
D.J. Johnson played one of his worst games of the year against a muscled-up Cincinnati front court. K-State has been at its best when Johnson is at his best, his strength around the basket and energy all over the floor creating chances for his teammates and robbing them from the opposition. Whatever the reason, that never happened Friday night.
“I don’t know what it was,” Weber said. “He even said it. ‘Coach, I didn’t have it.’ He’s been so good for us. He’s had great energy. He’s been the backstop of our defense.”
Weber enjoyed this group. You don’t hear that all the time when a man is coaching for his job, but it was true with this coach and this group. These were all his recruits, a sophomore class the program will win or lose with in the future growing out of an awkward roster reset of 2015.
He liked their versatility and their effort. He liked their passing and their love for each other. But most of all, he liked their commitment, because even when it looked bleak — and it looked bleak for, basically, the entire month of February — they never broke.
Those are the things that matter to coaches, perhaps more than anything. When seasons end in disappointment, coaches can drive themselves nuts if they feel they never reached their team. Weber won’t have that regret.
That’s something, at least.
“You couldn’t be prouder of the group,” he said. “You always want more.”
That sophomore class of Stokes, Dean Wade, and Barry Brown will largely determine where things go from here. Xavier Sneed had some moments. Isaiah Maurice made big improvements. Weber will need to fill out a recruiting class, ideally with a big-man transfer from a junior college or Division I school.
He’ll need to reach a different group, in a different way, and together they’ll need to do more than lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
There is enough for Weber and his players to be proud of this season. They were better than most expected. Resuscitating their season after the blowout against Oklahoma showed guts. But there is more to accomplish, more that needs to be accomplished, to solidify the future of the program.
Assuming Weber is back next season, he will likely be coaching for his job again. That’s how this goes. This is the life he’s chosen.