Sam Mellinger

Now comes the part where everyone doubts the first-place Wildcats

Iowa State’s Nick Weiler-Babb, left, gets a shot off around Kansas State’s Dean Wade (32) at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kan., on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Iowa State won, 78-64. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/TNS)
Iowa State’s Nick Weiler-Babb, left, gets a shot off around Kansas State’s Dean Wade (32) at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kan., on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Iowa State won, 78-64. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/TNS) TNS

They stood in a hallway underneath the bleachers and around the corner from the court where they had just rewritten the Big 12 race. This was the most important game of the week, and everyone knew it, and the whole thing flipped because of the two men in this hallway.

“We hit how many?” Lindell Wigginton asked.

The Iowa State guard heard the answer, about the three-pointers he and one teammate hit, and popped his eyes.

“Eleven? For real?”

If Kansas State is unable to keep a two-game lead at the turn of the Big 12 race, this is the moment that will be remembered — a 78-64 loss to Iowa State at home on a Saturday afternoon when seemingly everything went against the Wildcats. An incomplete list:

- Wigginton, a 36 percent three-point shooter, hit 5 of 6.

- Talen Horton-Tucker, a 29 percent shooter, hit 6 of 9, including a few from 25 feet or so and one that banked in.

- Dean Wade, perhaps the best player on the floor, was slowed first by his own unassertiveness and then by what was described as a different injury to the same foot that forced him out for six games earlier this season.

- Wildcats not named Barry Brown hit just 2 of 13 three-pointers.

The good news: K-State still controls the league race. One of the best senior classes in program history can still do what no group has done in 15 years — keep Kansas from at least a share of the league regular-season title. The Wildcats can be an infuriating watch on offense, with ball movement and spacing unworthy of their skills and talent, but they remain one of the nation’s top defensive teams.

K-State coach Bruce Weber did not sound optimistic that Wade would play at West Virginia on Monday. Wade did not practice this week, and wore a walking boot out of the arena. But the next two games are relative easy — West Virginia has won twice in 2019 and then KSU gets Oklahoma State at home. K-State should be able to get through those games without Wade.

“This is a true test of character coming,” Weber said.

OK. So that’s the good news.

The bad news: most everything else.

This is the best opportunity to end KU’s unprecedented — and, if we’re being honest, cringeworthy for the league — hold on Big 12 power, and K-State had emerged as the conference’s best hope. KU is injured, flawed, and living a drama that includes a suspension and a presumed NCAA investigation.

But here we are, the season’s last three weeks, and the two Sunflower State teams appear in opposite directions. Kansas is playing its best of the season, and K-State’s most talented player is dealing with another foot injury.

K-State is 9-3 in the league, still alone in first place and control of where it finishes, but the loss here to Iowa State means Kansas also controls where it finishes — the Jayhawks are 9-4 with a home game against K-State a week from Monday.

“Just gotta let them know we’re still in first place,” Brown said when asked what he’d tell his teammates. “We’re fine. We have a good group.”

That’s the optimistic view, and it comes with reason. This is a proud group, remarkably similar to the one that beat Kentucky and made the Elite Eight last year. Offense is harder than it should be for them, but they usually make offense even more difficult for the other side.

But a race that K-State once held securely is now starting to slip, taking shots from all sides.

Iowa State is 8-4 and likely to be favored in each of its remaining games. Texas Tech is 9-4, just bossed Baylor by 25, and has KU at home on Saturday. KU may have found the best version of itself, and Weber is 0-9 against the Jayhawks outside of Manhattan.

K-State’s most talented player is out indefinitely with an injury. Cartier Diarra remains out with a hand injury and the team was so rocked by illness that it’s struggled to hold a full practice.

“You’ve got pneumonia, you’ve got bronchitis, you’ve got feet, you’ve got hands,” Weber said.

Look. Let’s step away from the moment and be real here.

Weber coaches emotionally. He lives and leads with an open heart, and often talks a little more about bad breaks and setbacks than many of those around him would prefer.

But that exterior belies a dogged resiliency that has defined his life and often his teams. He’s been fired, dismissed, and mocked, and yet he’s been coach of the year in two leagues and is the only current Big 12 coach other than Bill Self to have won a share of the league title.

Two years ago, K-State was smashed by 30 at Oklahoma, the eighth loss in 10 games, and many left his career in Manhattan for dead. But Weber’s team then won at the buzzer at TCU, beat Texas Tech at home, and then beat then-No. 9 Baylor to get into the NCAA Tournament. Then the run to a regional final last year.

This is a good coach, is the point, and a man who has often found his brightest moments immediately after the storm.

The league race is so congested that another shared title seems likely, and KU’s history is such that an outright title wouldn’t be a shock.

But Weber is his own man, with a stubbornness that has served him well. His players form a close and talented group. They will now be dismissed by many.

Wouldn’t be the first time they found success together anyway.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.