As confetti fell from the Bramlage Coliseum ceiling and Kansas State basketball players began to celebrate on Saturday with the Big 12 championship trophy they had been working years to win, Bruce Weber became a spectator.
He watched Barry Brown dance as he placed a purple championship hat on his head. He smiled as Kamau Stokes flexed his muscles in front of the nearest camera. And he shook his head in disbelief as Dean Wade cut down the nets.
“It couldn’t be a better story,” Weber said later. “To have that group be honored like they were and win the game like this and to celebrate, it was special. It’s about them. We win because of the players. I’m just so proud of the seniors, the whole team and their resilience.”
No one can blame him for soaking up the moment. Parties like this don’t happen often in the Little Apple.
Weber won a Big 12 championship in 2013, but K-State ended that season with a loss and didn’t celebrate the achievement with fans until the following week. Before that, the Wildcats hadn’t won a conference title since 1977, before anyone on the current roster was born.
“We are champions,” Weber said. “I can’t say enough about it.”
To truly appreciate the scene in the same way as Weber, you must travel back to a disgruntled locker room at the Big 12 Tournament in 2015. The Wildcats had just ended their season at 15-17 and everyone was angry. Nino Williams, a senior at the time, summed up that team’s troubles by saying he got stuck with a bunch of losers as teammates.
Weber seemed to agree and replaced the bulk of K-State’s roster over the next few months. Fans were calling for him to be fired, but he had a plan. He was hitting the reset button and rebuilding around a group of unheralded freshmen he thought could restore the program to relevancy.
Four years later, they proved him right. Stokes (19 points, six assists), Brown (15 points, four assists) and Wade (11 points, seven rebounds, four assists) proved him right on senior day with a 68-53 victory over Oklahoma that clinched the team’s first Big 12 championship since 2013.
Not only did they play through pressure to tie Texas Tech atop the conference standings, Weber confidently said the game was easier than he dreamed it could be.
This is what he envisioned four years ago.
“I believed in the guys,” Weber said. “I thought we were good. Obviously, we probably don’t have the sex appeal that some teams have. We don’t have the name recruits. The networks, that is all they care about. I don’t watch much TV, but late at night I will watch SportsCenter. It’s nice to see them start to recognize that some of our guys like Barry and Dean are pretty good.”
K-State players understood the magnitude of their achievement.
Brown kissed the Powercat at midcourt as he walked off the floor for the final time, and so did Wade.
“I have so many memories in this building,” Wade said. “It was my last time playing in it. It was just the way to go out. It felt good.”
The party raged on long after the game ended. First came the hats and the T-shirts. Then the Wildcats hoisted the Big 12 championship trophy. After that, it was time to cut down the nets and take pictures with family.
Some players dropped to the floor and made confetti angels. A few cried.
Wade said he wasn’t a hat person, but he is now that he owned a championship ball cap. Brown strolled around like he owned the place.
“I think we all saw this day coming,” Brown said. “Maybe not everyone outside of our group, but we knew the work we put in year by year and day by day to get to this point. We knew we were a good team. Maybe had some tough losses, this and that, but we still knew that we bought in every day and fought every day and played every game hard like it was our last one. This was just a matter of time, honestly.”
Shane Southwell, a member of the 2013 championship team, agrees. When he returned to the Wildcats as a graduate assistant last year, he did so mainly because he thought this group had a bright future ahead of it.
These players reminded him of the team he was on seven seasons ago, Weber’s first in Manhattan.
“I could tell last year,” Southwell said. “We probably weren’t ready yet. But out of all the good teams in the league we were probably the youngest. Kansas was obviously one of the older teams. This team was right there, we just needed that experience. We got it this year.”
And they won.
K-State’s three seniors have grown up over the past four years, but this felt like a graduation of sorts. It was the day they arrived and legitimized their hard work.
Weber watched it all like a proud parent, but even he let loose eventually. While players were cutting down the net, he sprinted into the student section and embraced fans with high fives and hugs. He was practically crowd-surfing at one point.
The fans who once seemed torn about Weber cheered his name in approval and asked for pictures.
Wade said he hopes the accomplishments of this senior class will not only be remembered but build a foundation future teams can build on.
He wants to see more celebrations like this at Bramlage Coliseum.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Wade said. “You couldn’t write it any better.”