There is a lot to unwrap about what’s gone wrong with Bruce Weber’s basketball program at Kansas State. Transfers, suspensions, personality conflicts and an eroding culture.
But if you want to symbolize the problems in one easy image, you could do much worse than the picture from spring break that Marcus Foster recently posted on Twitter.
He has since deleted it, but the damage was already done. The picture showed him, Tre Harris and a fake iguana. Foster’s caption bragged the pair was “lit on the beach.” Harris was wearing Big 12 sunglasses.
Nobody is saying it publicly, but there is a direct line between that picture, the reference to being “lit” (often a term used to describe inebriation), and Foster and Harris being dismissed from the program with Weber saying the pair “have been unable to live up to the standards that we expect of our players.”
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With that, an already rotten season in which K-State was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 but was seeded eighth in the conference tournament and failed to even qualify for the NIT grew even worse.
Now, without their best player, K-State’s prospects next year are fairly terrible. The Wildcats could be picked last in the Big 12 preseason poll, and will almost certainly be in the bottom three. That’s a heck of a way to begin a critical season.
This will be Weber’s fourth year at K-State. He won a share of the program’s first conference title in a generation in his first season, and two years later finds himself with a significant rebuilding project. Some of what’s gone wrong is circumstance, much of it is not. All of it has happened under his watch.
Foster has been K-State’s leading scorer the last two years and was a preseason All-Big 12 pick last fall. Kicking him off the team is a strong move — two Big 12 sources, in separate conversations, called it “(gutsy)” — that will define the rest of Weber’s time at K-State, good or bad.
Baggage from both coach and fan base only adds to the drama. The narrative of Weber from his days at Illinois is that he can win with someone else’s players but not his own. Many K-State fans are having nasty flashbacks from the first miss of the NCAA Tournament since Frank Martin’s second season (the year after Michael Beasley) and the first miss of even an NIT appearance since Jim Woolridge’s last season.
Weber’s hand was forced a bit here. Not by the administration, which is the speculation of some, but by the vast gap between his own words and that picture.
Weber had talked a lot about commitment and focus. Much of that was directed at Foster, who was suspended and benched at varying times during the season. After K-State lost in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament, Foster admitted to not giving full effort at times and vowed to be better. Foster emphasized those points in meetings with the coaches.
Then came that picture.
If Weber did nothing here, what kind of message would it send to the rest of the team? If the players haven’t respected the rules or expectations of the program before, what happens when the consequences stop?
So Weber is betting on himself in some ways here, or at least betting on what he and K-State claim to be.
He has some history on his side. Athletic director John Currie hired Weber, most obviously, but there is also the institutional memory of K-State running off Dana Altman in 1994, which kicked off a 12-year drop to mediocrity.
But there is also something harder to define here. Dismissing the best player on the team going into a year you know must show improvement is a statement that you believe in more than talent.
Talent is always important, but there is a belief within the athletic department that K-State’s teams in all sports have always been at their best when they are tough, disciplined and smart. Weber’s bet here that the team can be better next season without its most talented player is a clear nod in that direction.
More than anything else, one of the most disappointing seasons in recent K-State basketball history can be traced directly to a deteriorated culture inside the program.
That’s on Weber, because he’s the one being paid $1.8 million to make the decisions. He recruited both Foster and Harris, as well as guard Jevon Thomas, who is transferring.
This is also why the spotlight is now on Weber in a way it hasn’t been yet at K-State. He has the support of the administration, but his first three seasons have played out mostly according to the script of those who didn’t like the hire.
K-State didn’t build an $18 million practice facility for its basketball team to miss the postseason. This program is now a complete reflection of Weber, and at the moment it’s not a good look.
Good for Weber for taking drastic steps to fix the problems, but it’s also true that the problems have bubbled up on his watch.
Whether an offseason of principled change improves a damaged culture enough to show a difference in wins and losses is both Weber’s bet and his challenge.
With a rotten season followed by the dismissal of his best player, the change should be obvious. Actually, Weber needs it to be obvious.