Sam Mellinger

Positive Bruce: K-State sees adversity but focuses on strengths entering NCAA tourney

Bruce Weber on UC Irvine, K-State’s first-round NCAA Tournament opponent

K-State coach Bruce Weber discussed UC Irvine, the Wildcats' first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament, on March 21, 2019 in San Jose, California.
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K-State coach Bruce Weber discussed UC Irvine, the Wildcats' first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament, on March 21, 2019 in San Jose, California.

Bruce Weber is talking again and even after all these years this makes some who love him nervous. He is honest, emotional and often without filter. These are some of his best traits. It’s him at his fullest.

The Kansas State basketball coach is 62 years old and a bit of a square with a job that requires him to relate to college basketball players. If he didn’t open his heart, where would that leave him?

“He’s sent from above,” said sophomore guard Cartier Diarra.

So Weber relates by speaking and coaching and feeling straight from his soul. That’s the good stuff. It comes with bad, and most often that’s when he says things he shouldn’t.

Weber comes with a naturally acquired underdog complex. He grew up in the profession as an assistant at Purdue, in the shadow of Indiana and Bob Knight. His first head coaching job was at Southern Illinois, which had made three NCAA Tournaments in 20 years, and his second was at Illinois following the successful and popular Bill Self.

Live that life and it’s hard not to look for slights, and even to see some where they might not exist. You’re always fighting it. Weber has, at various times, publicly noted an opponent would be fresher with more time to rest and more in rhythm with less. Injuries are not forgotten, ever, even as some around him have counseled him to evolve.

Here, then, is a tantalizing opportunity for Weber to go all-in on reminding anyone who will listen about what rotten luck K-State has ahead of its first-found NCAA Tournament game against UC Irvine at 1 p.m. Central here on Friday.

K-State will (again) be without star senior forward Dean Wade, out (again) with a foot injury. That changes how the Wildcats will play. They’ll go with four guards around one big, and will tweak some of their defensive principles: more traps, more switches and more help. Beginning with conference play, all five K-State losses have come with Wade either on the bench or slowed by an injury.

During a press conference Thursday, Kansas State players discuss playing UC Irvine during first-round action Friday in the NCAA Tournament.

Maybe that’s why the Wildcats are a popular upset pick. Sports books installed them as just a 5 1/2-point favorite, by far the smallest number for any No. 4 seed.

In another form of reality, maybe Weber would make that the theme. Adversity. Challenges. Bad luck. Not this guy, though, and not now.

“Cartier Diarra, we’re fortunate, right timing to get him back,” Weber said. “He gives us some quickness, some ability to get to the basket. You’ve got Xavier Sneed, who can play (either forward position), and then the two guards really spread you out. And Makol Mawien can score inside.”

This is Positive Bruce, the one who believes that no challenge is too great. This is as much a part of his personality as the part that sometimes focuses on bad breaks, which is sometimes easy to miss.

His teams are doggedly and consistently relentless. That trait helped save his job with wins over TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor toward the end of the 2016-17 season, and it came through again this season, when many counted his group out of the Big 12 race after Wade got hurt toward the end of the Iowa State loss.

But this is a group citing a higher calling now.

“When we play our game, we know what the outcome is,” Diarra said. “When we play K-State basketball — play great defense, top defense in the country, and execute on offense and get in transition — then nobody can stop us. If we do what we’re supposed to do, we know what the outcome is going to be.”

The particulars of that are a bit different now. Sneed is the Wildcats’ new power forward, and he’s five inches shorter than Wade.

Sneed isn’t the same threat from 15 feet, but the idea is that spreading the perimeter will create more space for penetration and passing. If the Wildcats will be smaller, maybe they can also be faster and less predictable.

“Now the ball can go into the paint four different ways with four different guards,” said KSU assistant coach Chester Frazier. “It’s a little different. But we’ve been in this situation.”

Yes they have, and Frazier could have been speaking of two different situations. The Wildcats haven’t been fully healthy in months and still won a share of the championship in one of the country’s toughest leagues. Diarra missed time with a hand injury, Kam Stokes has been in and out with a toe injury and migraines, and UC Irvine will be the ninth game Wade hasn’t played.

They’ve adjusted. The Wildcats are conveniently built for this. They are more game plan than scheme; more than most teams, they typically change sets and priorities based on the opponent. So some of this is natural, or what they might do anyway. That helps.

The more obvious situation Frazier may have been referring to is last year’s postseason, when a foot injury essentially wiped out Wade’s NCAA Tournament. He played just eight minutes total. K-State made it to the Elite Eight anyway.

K-State caught significant luck when UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1, but the Wildcats still had to win that game, and then the next week against Kentucky.

They are unlikely to get that sort of luck again. Better yet, a year older and a year better, they do not sound like a group that cares.

“We’re already past that,” Mawien said. “It’s a bummer when (Wade’s injury) happened, but after that we focus on what we can do. We’re ready.”

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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.