Sam Mellinger

Tears, regret and pride: End of the line for the group that saved K-State basketball

Bruce Weber says K-State’s senior class left a legacy at the school

Bruce Weber says K-State's senior class left a legacy at the school
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Bruce Weber says K-State's senior class left a legacy at the school

The door underneath the Powercat stayed shut 26 minutes after the end. Players and coaches only, a precious time to process the shock. Wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not yet.

Behind that door they cried. This should have been the beginning. Instead, the end. They’ll never have it like this again. It’s all memories now.

Through that door they could hear the hopeful and confident screams of two more teams running out of their own locker rooms and into the NCAA Tournament. The hope out in that hallway was gone inside Kansas State’s locker room after a 70-64 loss to UC Irvine in the first round of a tournament that will stay with this group forever.

“Kind of like you just (expletive-ing) lost,” said K-State senior Dean Wade, when asked what the room was like. “I mean, ‘Lost.’ Sorry. Just lost.”

So much to process. Regret, for one. Barry Brown played just 5 minutes, 45 seconds of the first half. He was whistled for two soft fouls, and that was it. He is a senior and Big 12 defensive player of the year who averages just 2.4 fouls despite playing more than 35 minutes per game. Still, KSU coach Bruce Weber kept him on the bench.

Weber is a good coach who has taken more criticism than he’s deserved. But this was a mistake. It was a mistake in the moment, and one that only grew. K-State led by as many as 10 in the first half. One of the best players in program history, Brown could have pushed it even more.

The automatic benching caused some lineup problems. At one point, K-State went with Xavier Sneed, Makol Mawien, Austin Trice, Levi Stockard and Mike McGurl. UC Irvine outscored that lineup 7-0 in 1 minute, 42 seconds, and by halftime the score was even.

Brown didn’t play well in the second half, either. Brown has never been one to make excuses, but here’s his answer when asked if he drew a connection between sitting most of the first half and failing to find a rhythm in the second.

“Yeah,” he said. “Even if I didn’t shoot a ball in the first half, but played the whole time, I would’ve had a little better feel for our defense, for the ball, for the court, just being out there.”

This is a point that will stick with Weber. There are no guarantees, but particularly with Wade injured the Wildcats needed as much from Brown as possible. He fouled out of just three of 139 career games. He did not commit a foul in the second half. He should have played more.

“You can always question everything,” Weber said. “You hope Barry was fresh in the second half then because he’s logged so many minutes. It just wasn’t meant to be. People can always (have) hindsight. If I leave him in there, he gets a third foul, then everyone says, ‘You’re a dumbass, why did you put him back in there?’ That’s coaching.”

More regret. K-State hit just eight of 27 three-pointers (29.6 percent). Sneed fouled out, each of the last two calls against him coming on 50-50 calls far from the basket. Brown threw the ball away on K-State’s last-chance possession, misreading a cut from a teammate.

But the regret with Wade stands above all. He was the centerpiece of the recruiting class that changed everything, joining a program that had become wildly unpopular, and dragged it to three NCAA Tournaments, including an Elite Eight run last season and a share of the Big 12 championship as seniors.

“Fans didn’t even like us,” Wade said. “We knew we were the only people we had. Barry, Kam (Stokes), it was like, ‘We’re us now. We have to turn this around or be hated forever.’”

Barry Brown thinks early fouls hurt K-State in NCAA Tournament loss to UC Irvine

This was their last shot together, and Wade watched it from the end of the bench, his injured foot in a boot. He said he tried various treatments and nothing worked. Doctors expect him healthy enough for basketball by May, which should help his professional career but at the moment feels like an undeserved punishment.

Last year, Wade played just eight minutes during K-State’s NCAA Tournament run because of another foot injury. He grew up in a tiny central Kansas town called St. John, rooting for the Wildcats and dreaming of a time when he could one day play there. He earned the chance, helped make the program better, and then couldn’t take part in the most important games.

“Two years in a row,” he said. “It sucks. But that’s life. Life’s not fair.”

Many teams have taken to wearing warmup shirts with FAMILY printed across the chest. That branding has become a dark joke in some circles as the underbelly of college athletics has been further exposed, but it’s always seemed to fit this group.

They were strangers before this ride but have long since become best friends. They play cards or video games, rip on each other. Brown took to serving as something like Wade’s waiter at team meals, the point guard keeping his forward off the injured foot as much as possible.

Cartier Diarra is a centerpiece of the program’s future now. He’ll be a junior next year, with speed and talent and experience that should make him one of the Big 12’s better guards.

In the moments after his sophomore season ended, he sat in a corner, a March Madness towel covering his head, steering most answers back to the group of brothers — he used that word intentionally — he’ll never play with again.

“I pray and believe they’ll have futures playing professionally,” Diarra said. “I hope they achieve all their dreams and get what they want, because they deserve it. Them dudes grinded. I appreciate and I respect that. All love to them.”

Wade said he wanted to be remembered as a guy who made a difference, who helped bring the program to better days. He hoped people thought of him as a good person who would do anything for his teammates and community. He spoke from the heart, and none of it was about a jump shot.

Brown came to K-State as a three-star recruit, initially viewed as the lesser option between Kerwin Roach, who Weber also offered a scholarship but who ended up at Texas. He grew into an all-time great. It’s likely that someday his jersey will hang from the Bramlage Coliseum rafters. On the school’s all-time charts, he ranks first in games played and steals, fifth in points and sixth in assists.

“Just that I love my university, man,” Brown said when asked how he hoped fans remembered his time in Manhattan, Kan. “I love being a Wildcat. I wear my purple every day, walking to campus, talking to fans. I love that. I just love everything about K-State.”

Dean Wade says missing this NCAA Tournament was the toughest part of his life

Weber’s tone after the loss was striking. He wasn’t positive, exactly, but he was proud despite the moment. He’s been through this before, same as every coach who’s lasted long enough in the profession. He used to go bananas after losses — “spastic” is the word he used — and didn’t expect to sleep for the next few nights.

But this group is different. Over and over the last four years he has praised them for coming to K-State for the right reasons and working in the right ways. He knew how much they cared. He saw how much they hurt.

Weber is a religious man, and for the last few months his last prayer of every day was that this group could finish their time together healthy. That didn’t happen, of course, and even if it did there are no guarantees that the ending would’ve been different.

But the truth is this group gave him life. Gave him energy. Reaffirmed his love of coaching. Brown, Stokes, and Wade saved his job at K-State. They saved the program.

The feeling of the moment hurt on Friday. It stunk. But it didn’t ruin the journey.

“Unbelievable, to be a part of their life,” Weber said. “To sit there and watch them cry like babies, it’s so, so sad because they’re done. You hate it to come to an end. It hasn’t been all balloons and celebrations. But they do it the right way. They came here for the right reasons. They’re leaving with an unbelievable legacy, and you can’t be more proud of them.”

Regret is a complicated thing, and the Wildcats have some. Fouls. Missed shots. Not attacking UC Irvine’s zone defense differently.

But those are small things, because the worst regret is the one that comes from a lack of effort. From the feeling that you could have done more, or should have done more, and on that point this group’s time in college ends in the best way possible.

Without regret.

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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.