The most overanalyzed and disingenuously debated court storming of the college basketball season never happened, and not because of administrative policy, but because of a basketball talent gap — and for Kansas State that’s a much bigger concern.
The noise in this building can be overwhelming. The students are as close as possible without paying courtside prices, and the advantage of the energy is obvious. But these games are still won by players, not fans or even coaches, and the noise and defense could only do so much against No. 2 Kansas in what turned out to be a 72-63 loss at Bramlage Coliseum on Saturday.
“There’s an old saying,” K-State coach Bruce Weber says. “ ‘What do you get when you don’t get what you want? You get what you need, and that’s experience.’ And that’s what we’re getting.”
The loss dropped the Wildcats to 15-12 overall, and 4-10 in Big 12 play. One more loss — they finish vs. Texas, at Iowa State, vs. TCU and at Texas Tech — and Weber’s teams will have lost more conference games each season since his first in 2013.
His program remains something of an inkblot test. Defenders will point to this year’s roster turnover, or Kamau Stokes’ injury, or all the close losses (four within three points or in overtime). Critics will point out Weber is in charge of the roster turnover, that injuries are part of sports, and that close losses are still, you know, losses.
Here is what’s true: K-State is behind schedule in Weber’s fourth year, he should and will coach a fifth, and it better be a significant improvement or there might not be a sixth.
Weber has often had an awkward public presentation, from the faux funeral he held for Bill Self after taking over at Illinois to a consistent refusal to accept blame when things go wrong. Optics are important in major-college sports, because they impact donations, revenue, and recruiting.
K-State has generally outplayed its talent level, and performed better than the record indicates. It entered the day ranked 44th by KenPom.com, which was higher than Pittsburgh, Michigan, South Carolina and others. But at the moment, four years into the job, he’s closer to the NIT than the NCAA Tournament.
There are reasons to believe K-State will get back to being a regular tournament team, even now. The late transfer of Angel Rodriguez three years ago and some obvious mistakes by Weber in recruiting or managing some of the players who left after last season don’t have to be looked back on as why he never got traction after winning a share of the Big 12 regular-season title in his first year.
There are reasons to believe in the direction of this program, or, more specifically, that a predictable drop this season will be the bottom before a sustainable rebound begins next year.
“This will be a fun team to coach, I would think,” KU coach Bill Self says. “Their freshmen have been through big moments. I would say the foundation is set for them to be good.”
This loss hurt Weber. He kept a strong face and stuck mostly to the cliches in the postgame, but he was as loud and animated on the sideline as any point in his four years here. K-State beat KU in this building two years in a row. That’s a big point of pride. Even after beating then-No. 1 Oklahoma here two weeks ago, this would’ve been the moment of the season for K-State.
Kansas won because it has better players. That is, basically, always true but there is enough energy in this building to sometimes make up the difference. KU led by as many as 17 in the second half, but K-State played well enough to have some chances late. A dunk by Stephen Hurt cut it to five with about 5 minutes left, but then Jamari Traylor made a better dunk to push it back to seven.
KU big man Landen Lucas fouled out with about 2 minutes left, and D.J. Johnson’s free throws cut the lead to three points. But then Devonte’ Graham — who had not scored — hit a step-back jumper to push it back to five with 1:45 left.
“There’s no doubt, we’ve had our chances,” Weber says. “You gotta have playmakers. We make the run, and then Graham goes, boop-boop-boop on D.J., and pops up, switch. We had our chances, and we didn’t come up with them.”
That is the season K-State is having. Missed chances. The other team making plays. Weber took this job with a generally blah welcome from fans, and has not disproved the narrative of a coach who can win with someone else’s players but not his own.
Weber was supposed to be beyond this water treading. When he took the job, people close to him said one of the biggest problems at Illinois was he felt pressure to chase recruits he was not comfortable chasing, and not at his best coaching. That was supposed to be cured here, both by experience and support from administration to build the program how he sees fit.
But Weber was unable to work with Marcus Foster, the best player of his first full recruiting class, who was dismissed after leading K-State in scoring as a freshman and sophomore.
Self is right, too. This is a team that should improve, in the long term if not the short. The nine-man rotation includes just two seniors. The starting lineup Saturday included just one senior. Two freshmen started, and another, point guard Kamau Stokes, is the team’s best ball handler and started 20 games before missing the last six because of an injury.
Within the program, there is excitement about a recruiting class headlined by four-star forward Xavier Sneed from Florissant, Mo. He chose K-State over Xavier, Illinois, Missouri, Wichita State and others. That’s important.
But Weber is also too far along to be given credit for almost being good, or for optimism about the future to outweigh results. K-State needs playmakers, he’s right. But this is his fourth season. That’s on him, to develop or recruit them. The best playmaker he’s had was kicked off the team.
Weber’s situation, then, is layered and an entirely rotten fit for the sports tendency to be certain more often than right. He has a good job, for a lot of reasons. His teams play with a significant home-court advantage, even when their record is bad. The administration believes strongly in consistency, and continues to give him full support.
But it’s not always going to be like that. Patience runs out, eventually. Many coaches wouldn’t be allowed a program reboot like this. He won’t be given two.