On the surface, the pivot-point of Kansas State’s school-record fifth straight NCAA Tournament was a 48-hour swing in early February. The sagging Wildcats changed the trajectory of their season with wins over No. 15 Texas and No. 7 Kansas in overtime.
Freshman Marcus Foster scored 34 points against Texas and 20 in the uncommon K-State win over KU, and it’s easy to suppose that’s when he truly became himself which is to say one of the best freshmen in the game.
“That showed us we can be in the tournament,” he said Thursday, “and we could do great things here in the tournament.”
But if those games represented the result, his coming of age hinged on a piercing failure a few weeks earlier at Allen Fieldhouse.
In an 86-60 thrashing by the Jayhawks, Foster absorbed a lesson that transformed his season. And it still has direct implications on his approach to the Wildcats’ game against Kentucky on Friday night at the Scottrade Center.
As evidently humble and understated as he might be, Foster entered that first game consumed with the idea that it was his platform to demonstrate what he could do against the ballyhooed Andrew Wiggins.
Even as Foster warmed up, he realizes in hindsight, he found himself heedless of teammates and essentially thinking, “I’m going to do it by myself.”
“I really wanted to win the game and to show up Andrew Wiggins ” he said, smiling and later adding, “Didn’t work out the best for me
“He’s the No. 1 draft pick, potential No. 1 draft pick. I wanted to prove myself and say I’m just as good as him. And it didn’t work out for me.”
Not in the moment, anyway.
Swarmed by Kansas and Wiggins, a flustered Forster made three of 12 field goals as Wiggins scored 22 points.
If it wasn’t a shattering experience for Foster, it was a sobering one.
In high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, after all, he couldn’t overdo anything.
“I had no conscience; I shot practically half-court shots every possession just because I could,” he said. “And even if I missed, I’d run and get the rebound and put it back up.”
Now, he had to get back up himself.
So by early the next morning, he was in an otherwise empty Bramlage Coliseum.
Alone in a gym, he said, he “can be free and think.” The time was therapeutic and consoling.
But he wasn’t using it to deflect what had happened but to reflect on it. Pure and simple, he had been selfish.
It was different in high school, when whatever contortion he went into to get off a shot generally still was the team’s best option.
Now he was embarrassed he’d let that happen.
“I just learned,” he said, “I never wanted to do that to my teammates again.”
So that became a guiding principle of the rest of his season, and maybe this different dimension to his game was best summarized by K-State coach Bruce Weber.
“I joke with him all the time I don’t know if he had an assist in high school, and one game this year (at Baylor) he had 10 in one game,” Weber said. “So he learned that when people lock in on him, he’s got to make the next pass, the next play.”
Which takes us to Foster’s approach to tonight’s game against Kentucky and its own freshman sensations.
“To me, all the freshmen over there are better than me. And they’re already pros right now,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn.”
Now, there may be some element of rope-a-dope in this.
Over the course of about 30 minutes in the K-State locker room on Thursday, Foster alternately said Kentucky is “an intimidating team” “definitely dangerous” and perhaps “a little scary.”
After the cameras and crowd cleared, though, he conceded, “I don’t think people think we’re going to win or be able to compete with them, but they’re going to find out tomorrow night.”
And when it comes down to it, he might be hard-pressed not to want to prove himself on the stat line.
But Foster’s learned that the most impressive stats he can mount will be wins.
If he fails to have a big game today, here’s believing it won’t be because he was selfish.
In fact, he seems to see the moment as about a lot more than himself even if much about him suggests he’s a key to K-State’s fate here and its future at a time when young players matter more than ever.
“A lot of people talk about how they want to be one and done, two and done,” Foster said. “So I think college basketball is definitely changing to a younger game.”
His rapid rise, albeit after an under-the-radar high school career, has been part of a recasting of Weber’s recruiting ability.
“Coming in, I’ve seen tweets that ‘he can’t recruit,’ (and) ‘this freshman class isn’t going to be that good,’” Foster said. “And we proved to everybody that maybe he can recruit; he brought in five good guys who can really play.”
It makes for an intriguing subplot to the game against Kentucky, which has become built on five-star recruits and the one-and-done consequences that come with it.
“I think some of our guys were ‘no stars,’” Weber said, smiling.
But even now, a team game can trump a star-studded lineup.
“We can’t be individuals,” Weber said.
Foster already learned that in his most painful but most valuable lesson of the season.