Sam Mellinger

The defining challenge of Bruce Weber and the future of 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
Up Next
Bruce Weber says K-State's senior class left a legacy at the school

The question is sort of requisite in this line of work and Xavier Sneed appeared to be expecting it. The NCAA Tournament loss was just a half-hour or so old, the end of his junior season at Kansas State still fresh, but the answer is imperative to the future of the program he’s helped lift.

How sure is Sneed that he’ll be back?

The guard clapped his massive hands, moved up in his chair, and gave the only answer the moment allowed.

“I’m just worried about today,” he said. “I have no clue about tomorrow.”

Bruce Weber’s program is in a similar (and related) stretch of uncertainty. Sneed is expected to put his name into NBA Draft consideration. He is not projected as a draft pick this summer, but there is no downside to participating in the process.

The decision will likely come down to this: make money somewhere other than the NBA next season or return as the alpha for a team moving on from one of the most important recruiting classes in program history.

As always in this sport, judgments will be made on the coach. Weber finds himself at a crucial spot now, a possible fork in the road of his seven-year journey to fully win over KSU fans.

His immediate future is secure. That is the deserved byproduct of a run to the Elite Eight last year and a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship this season. His contract runs four more years, with buyouts that vary between $2 million and $2.6 million the next two.

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

Weber is 62. This is likely to be the last head-coaching job of a career now into its fifth decade. But the story of that career is still being written, good and bad. This next stretch could tip the scales and determine how he is remembered in Manhattan.

At the moment, fans can reverse-engineer his career to whatever conclusion they’ve already made.

Believe in Bruce? Cool, because he’s won the program’s only two conference titles in the last 40 years and coached one of only two Elite Eight runs in the last 30. Four K-State coaches have made three consecutive NCAA Tournaments: Weber, Frank Martin, Lon Kruger and Jack Hartman. Make it again next year and Weber would join Kruger as the only men to make it four.

Don’t like Bruce? Cool, because the first conference title was with Martin’s players and that group lost to Kansas three times and was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by La Salle in Kansas City. Weber’s benching of Barry Brown with two fouls Friday is just the latest example of a frustrating coaching move, and he’s only made it to March Madness’ second weekend once.

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

You can see how this is all murky, still, even as it’s more positive than four years ago when he could’ve been fairly fired.

One mark for optimism is that the Wildcats’ future is relatively promising even with the graduation of a senior class that defined the program for years. K-State is unlikely to win another conference championship next year, but it should still be an NCAA Tournament contender.

Assuming Sneed stays, he will form an experienced and tough core with guard Cartier Diarra and power forward Makol Mawien. NCAA Tournament teams have been built on less.

Sneed has been K-State’s best player in bursts over the last few years, and some around the program believe Diarra has the higher ceiling. Mawien is a strong rebounder and rim protector who should be even better with another year of confidence and growth.

Mike McGuirl, Levi Stockard and Shaun Neal-Williams will be in line for bigger roles, too.

DaJuan Gordon was named the Chicago high school player of the year and leads K-State’s best recruiting class since the one that is about to graduate. Incoming power forward Montavious Murphy was named first-team all-Houston by the Houston Chronicle.

The class is filled out with Antonio Gordon, a three-star recruit and prolific scorer from Lawton, Okla., and redshirt Goodnews Kpegeol. The latter was headed to a prep school, but K-State had a scholarship open and coaches have been encouraged by his energy and improvement.

Weber’s time at K-State has been defined by conflict, drama and wild swings from celebrations to fan dissatisfaction. He won in his first year with a talented group he inherited, failed spectacularly with his first set of recruits, and then drove the program back up with the groups that followed.

This is easy to forget now, but there was a time some fans wondered if Weber was good enough to push forward after the graduation of Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson.

Now it’s up to Sneed, Diarra and Mawien to keep it moving.

The challenge going forward, then, is about sustainability. Because right now, Weber has a foot in two worlds — he proved people wrong, but not so convincingly that they are forced to concede.

At the moment, it is the recruiting class of Brown, Wade and Stokes that saved the program and Weber’s job.

Going forward, Weber needs to be the kind of leader who makes sure his job and program don’t need to be saved again.

Don't have a KC Star subscription? Help support our sports coverage

If you already subscribe to The Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 per year. It's your ticket to everything sports in Kansas City ... and beyond, and helps us produce sports coverage like this.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

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.