ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg gave Kansas State the ultimate compliment earlier this week when he went on national TV and predicted the Wildcats will reach the Final Four.
It was a fitting end to a preseason filled with respect for K-State, from a No. 12 ranking to the No. 2 spot in the Big 12 coaches poll to Dean Wade being named the favorite to win conference Player of the Year honors. It’s been a while since the Wildcats felt this much national love.
And yet, none of it was enough for Bruce Weber.
“I guess it’s good publicity,” Weber said, shrugging his shoulders. “I did open up the USA Today this morning in the airport and they had the top 10 college basketball players to watch. Our guys weren’t on it. I was mad about that. It is what it is. We can’t worry about that.”
This is a new approach for Weber. So much so, that if feels like he has morphed into a new person — Confident Bruce.
Whatever you call him, Weber is definitely walking with a swagger right now. He thinks this K-State team, which is coming off a 25-win season and an appearance in the Elite Eight, deserves more respect than it is already getting. The Wildcats return their entire starting five and most of their key reserves, they added impact junior-college transfer Austin Trice and they wiped the floor with No. 14 Oregon in a closed scrimmage two weeks ago.
Weber refuses to pump his fist at the site of Final Four predictions, because, well, that is his own expectation for this team. But it truly bothers him that star seniors like Barry Brown and Wade aren’t getting All-America buzz.
“Somebody is not watching or paying attention,” Weber said.
Confident Bruce has turned some heads over the past few months with comments like that. Not long ago, he was a punching bag. Every loss left someone calling for his job, and his soundbites made K-State fans cringe more often than cheer. The heat was on when the Wildcats cratered in 2015 and missed the NCAA Tournament again in 2016. Even last season, the fan base wasn’t sold on him until K-State upset Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
Now, with Bill Snyder’s football team off to a 3-6 start, Weber is suddenly the most popular coach on campus. Ticket sales are up and basketball excitement is back. He’s embracing the spotlight.
“He hasn’t quite said we are going to win a national championship, but he’s covered everything else,” K-State athletic director Gene Taylor said. “That has surprised me a little, but it’s obvious he is having fun. I think he just loves being around this team. They are a good group and they are his guys. They should have high expectations. This team has the potential for great success, but it’s more than that. What he has with this team is special.”
That much was evident when Weber brought back Madness in Manhattan as a kickoff event for basketball season. He entered Bramlage Coliseum with the lights dimmed and a Travis Scott rap song blaring in the background (he let K-State players choose the tune). Video of Weber dancing to the beat, and his players joining in, went viral.
Jacob Pullen, K-State’s all-time leading scorer and a harsh Weber critic when he was hired in 2012, watched from a front row seat. Afterward, Pullen said he said he had the “utmost respect” for Weber and supported everything he was doing with the basketball program.
Weber, at long last, won him over.
Later, Brown pretended to be a manikin and scared Weber on his way into the office. That video prank was also a hit.
“Honestly, this is the best team I think I have ever played for in my life,” Trice said. “Every player in that locker room is my brother. It’s unbelievable, there are no cliques between us. There are not two or three guys who hang out, it is all 11 of us at the same time. It is amazing.”
For the first time, Weber seems like the face of K-State basketball.
His squeaky-clean track record as a recruiter now makes him stand out from the crowd, and he has built his own program in Manhattan. That may seem strange, considering he is 125-80 with a shared Big 12 championship, four NCAA Tournament appearances and an Elite Eight over six seasons with the Wildcats. But Weber hit the reset button in 2015 and rebuilt K-State’s roster around current seniors Brown, Wade and Kamau Stokes.
His plan worked.
“This is really his team,” associate head coach Chris Lowery said. “We’ve seen the pressure of him coaching somebody else’s supposed players, trying to get it right and then starting over. When we first got here, people liked the team but nobody really gave us a chance as coaches.”
“Now with Barry, Kamau, Dean ... Those are his guys, and when they hang it up they could be all-time greats. When you have good players that you brought in and developed and had success with, it’s easy to feel a certain way. Anyone would be confident with this group.”
Still, Weber has found interesting ways to raise the bar for his team, which he has compared, in terms of experience, to the Illinois team he coached to the national championship game in 2005.
Big 12 Player of the Year? Not good enough. You want to be an All-American. Top 15 team? Don’t settle for that. You were in the Elite Eight last season. Second place in the Big 12 standings? Please.
Confident Bruce is finding bulletin-board material in unusual places, even on days when a respected ESPN analyst picks K-State to make the Final Four.
“We need that,” K-State guard Cartier Diarra said. “He believes in us and we believe in ourselves. The only thing we want is No. 1. Until we are No. 1 we have to fight and work. We want to be the top dogs. Until that happens we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than anybody else.”