Amid the immediate postgame delirium at Bramlage Coliseum on Monday night, Kansas State coach Bruce Weber struggled to navigate his way to Kansas coach Bill Self to shake hands.
Self was so engulfed in the swarm of K-State revelers, in fact, that by the time Weber got to him he basically had to hug Self to protect him from the crowd.
“I feel bad for Bill Self,” Weber would say afterward.
He meant that purely in the context of the moment, of course, but imagine that:
A man who for years has had to bear the cross of simply not being Bill Self, of operating either in his wake or considerable shadow (and through some friction in their relationship), having even that fleeting thought.
K-State’s 70-63 victory over the eighth-ranked Jayhawks doesn’t make for some seismic shift in perspective on that relationship, of course, a relationship that has been paralleled by recent results in a rivalry wanting for the juice of competitiveness.
Kansas, which fell to 22-6 overall and 11-4 in the Big 12, still has beaten K-State in 50 of the last 55 meetings, and the Wildcats are still in the throes of a topsy-turvy and disappointing season at 14-15 and 7-9 in the Big 12.
But this was a night that K-State played with the sort of fury, cohesion and resilience that leaves you wondering a few things:
Might it prove to be a too-late catalyst — other such games haven’t had that impact — and … why hasn’t this been there all the time?
It might also leave you thinking how much Weber had to have this win for validation, or maybe even resuscitation, especially after his team had lost seven of the last eight and seemed in chaos.
But if Weber might have needed this with a faction of fans, the truth is this game doesn’t change anything about how K-State sees Weber.
Because K-State does and should believe in him … even if his team has had a third-year lapse.
Naturally, that trajectory has fueled the perception of the pre-existing condition that had stigmatized Weber at Illinois: that he isn’t capable of building his own program and so prospers only by inheriting the treasures of others … before frittering it away himself.
And, shoot, maybe that will prove true in the end.
But it’s by no means an established fact now, as vividly reinforced Monday night when the Wildcats further rendered KU’s presumed 11th straight Big 12 regular-season title into a challenge that will go down to the end.
If you are assuming that image of Weber is the case, it’s perhaps worth asking yourself to what degree that thinking is reflexive confirmation bias of what you originally thought and to what degree it actually speaks to the state of things.
As much as we want black and white, or just action any time something goes awry, the simple truth is there’s no way to know yet if this up-and-down season for K-State is a blip or a trend.
But if the K-State administration has loved the way Weber has conducted himself and the program since he got here, loved that he won’t give up on people and that he might be too danged nice and clean and cares about academics, then there’s no reason it should be abandoning that supportive stance at the first sign of trouble.
Another regression next season might be another matter — a clear pattern that K-State can’t conscience with its investment in basketball facilities and after the program had been revived to five straight NCAA appearances entering this season.
From where we sit, we assume neither scenario … but don’t buy the rush to judgment that this isn’t going to work.
The dismissive thinking notwithstanding, it bears mention that in his first head coaching job Weber revived a dormant Southern Illinois program and whisked it to a Sweet 16.
At Illinois, yes, he went to the Sweet 16 and a Final Four with a core left behind by Self.
Less remembered, he also took four of his next six teams into the NCAAs before being undone by a 6-12 Big Ten record in 2011-2012.
Then came his first two seasons at K-State, where you might say he exceeded expectations by going 47-21 and 24-12 in Big 12 play, coaxing his first team to a tie for the Big 12 title and getting back to the NCAA last season much on the wings of … his own recruit, Marcus Foster.
So no matter how much a lot of this season has seemed to fit a conditioned narrative of anti-Weber factions, the truth is that every coaching job every season has its own dynamics and challenges.
That doesn’t absolve Weber for the struggles of this season, of course.
It’s his third season, after all, and something sure seems disconnected when there are such mood swings in his team from game to game and an apparent leadership vacuum among his players — who have been punished more often than you’d like to see at this stage of a program.
For that matter, maybe it’s not so great to publicly call out the team like he did after last week’s 69-55 loss at Texas Christian. His filter-free press conferences are good for us in the media but arguably counterproductive with his team.
Then again, that’s Bruce Weber. What you see is what you get.
And it says here that’s a good thing unless proven otherwise — and not just because his Wildcats beat KU on Monday night and for one shining moment Weber had to feel bad for Self.