Kansas State’s NCAA Tournament contest against Kentucky hadn’t tipped off and there was Big Blue guard Andrew Harrison standing at the free-throw line.
He badly missed the first freebie, and ball bounced all the way to the K-State radio position occupied by Wyatt Thompson and Stan Weber. They were, at the moment, no doubt explaining that their team, specifically Brian Rohleder, had been assessed an administrative technical foul before the game.
Rohleder’s offense? He dunked in the pregame warm-ups. That’s allowed until the clock counts down to 20:00. Rohleder, a walk-on from Wichita who had appeared in 17 games and has scored two points this season, couldn’t beat the clock, and was caught slamming at 19:58.
That’s not why K-State fell to Kentucky 56-49 in a grinder late Friday, setting up a delicious game between undefeated Wichita State and the team that was supposed to be undefeated based on its highly touted recruiting class.
No, mostly Kansas State’s Wildcats couldn’t handle Kentucky’s Wildcats’ length. Early on, Kentucky played tetherball with offensive rebounds, batting them around until something good happened.
Eventually, K-State figured out ways to keep shots away from guys like 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and started digging in its heels.
A 12-point deficit late in the first half was sliced in half by the break. Twice in the first 10 minutes of the second half, Kansas State closed to within a basket.
But no purple thrust got all the way to a tie or lead and frustration started to boil over. Shane Southwell picked up a conventional technical foul for wolfing over a non-call. K-State could get little done on the offensive end.
Still, K-State coach Bruce Weber was peeved about the pregame call.
“I don’t agree with that,” he said. “Have a ref come down and say, don’t dunk anymore.”
Still, Kansas State concludes with a 20-13 record and an overall positive feeling.
The last two weeks won’t feel good. K-State dropped four games to end year, including the senior sendoff in the regular-season finale and Big 12 and NCAA tournament openers.
That makes it easy to forget the high points, a winning Big 12 record, a home victory over Kansas, and a season-pivoting triumph over Gonzaga.
Something of a transition year, with a roster that blended the veterans recruited by Frank Martin with Bruce Weber’s recruits, opened in mystery. Did K-State have enough to remain on a positive track? Nobody outside the Wildcats’ locker room seemed sure.
But recruit Marcus Foster became a revelation. Thomas Gipson slimmed down and improved his game and stamina. Senior Will Spradling leaves the program as a 1,000-point career scorer. Shane Southwell didn’t take as big a step as expected, but as the season developed this became more Foster’s team.
Next year, the roster is bolstered by the addition of Maine transfer Justin Edwards, the America East’s top scorer last year; Georgetown transfer and shot blocker Brandon Bolden; Stephen Hurt, an athletic junior-college transfer; and shooter Tre Harris.
Foster is especially happy with the prospect of playing with Edwards.
“Instead of making the silly freshmen mistakes, we’ll be making the veteran plays,” he said.
None of that eases the pain of Friday’s loss. Nobody gave Kansas State much of a chance against the nation’s preseason No. 1-ranked team with the top recruiting class. Kentucky is starting five freshmen these days, and Julius Randle, one of the nation’s top rookies, went for 18 points and 14 rebounds.
The Wildcats had 40 points with two minutes remaining. They never let Kentucky out of their sites but didn’t have enough to seriously threaten.
This marks the second straight year for a first-game NCAA Tournament exit, and although last year’s loss was more egregious — K-State lost to a No. 13 seed — the tournament action of the first two days proves victory is available to nearly anybody talented and tough enough to grab it.
K-State has been tough enough under Weber, and its working on the talent. Maybe there will be enough next season to continue the successful path and add an NCAA Tournament victory.