Sam Mellinger

Marcus Foster still has chance to make a place for himself in K-State hoops history

Kansas State's Marcus Foster (2) is pressured by Texas Tech's Zach Smith (11) as he drives with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, in Manhattan, Kan. Kansas State won 58-51.
Kansas State's Marcus Foster (2) is pressured by Texas Tech's Zach Smith (11) as he drives with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, in Manhattan, Kan. Kansas State won 58-51. AP

Marcus Foster 2.0 high-fives every teammate and coach when he comes out of the game. He sits down and watches every play from the bench, clapping for his teammates playing defense, screaming when one of them draws a charge and held back with a smile on his face when he sees a dunk.

This is the start of the second act for a young man who should be Kansas State’s best basketball player since Jacob Pullen. Foster has to know this is the part of his career he will be remembered for. This is the one he’ll be judged on. For better, or for worse.

The beginning of a restart is a would-be star trying to fit in during a mostly forgettable 58-51 win over Texas Tech on Wednesday. Benched with layered and somewhat vague references to selfishness and a lack of focus, Foster is trying to rise again with sweat and humility.

“I’m not too happy with the way I played,” Foster says. “I know I missed a lot of defensive assignments, and that’s something I don’t usually do. I put my teammates in a bad position.”

He’s being hard on himself, which is no doubt fine with K-State coach Bruce Weber. Foster probably wasn’t K-State’s best player on Wednesday (that was Wesley Iwundu) but he was good — a team-high 14 points, five rebounds, four assists and just one turnover.

There are bits of his game and that answer that are created from this reboot. Foster is the best player on this team, and he knows it, and this is both the gift and the curse. He was supposed to be one of the best five players in the Big 12 this season but found himself benched for two games at the start of conference play. K-State’s leading scorer the last two years had two points on nine shots in two games.

Foster was pouty, and now admits he was focused too much on proving himself for the NBA and not enough on making himself as good as possible at K-State. Foster isn’t listed on most mock drafts — whatever that’s worth — and very likely has to prove a different set of skills (better ball handling, more quickness) than he’s shown so far to have an NBA career.

Weber has to know this, and it’s a boss move to bench your best player at the start of conference play. K-State was having a rotten run of it at the time. Bad losses to Long Beach State, Pittsburgh, Georgia and especially Texas Southern probably mean the Wildcats need at least 11 conference wins to make the NCAA Tournament. K-State’s biggest weakness is scoring, and Foster is the team’s best individual scorer.

So give Weber credit for having the guts to shake Foster, and more important give Foster credit for responding. He has 2 1/2 years of eligibility if he wants them, which is more than enough time to make himself remembered.

Foster scored 23 points against TCU, which earned him his starting spot back at Oklahoma, where he hit the shots that forced overtime and then won it — putting hope back into the season, and earning him the conference player of the week award.

But now comes the hard part. It’s one thing for adrenaline and pride to push forward after an embarrassing stretch. It’s another thing to make that the baseline. That’s what Foster did as a freshman, the overlooked recruit who came to play for Weber and pushed K-State back to the NCAA Tournament.

The Big 12 is a brutal challenge this year, perhaps the best league in the country, and K-State was by far its biggest disappointment in nonconference play. For a while, perhaps, Foster handled it all poorly. But now, he can turn it into one of those pivotal points in his story at K-State — the time he wore his coach’s criticism, swallowed the punishment and came back stronger. There is honor in that.

Foster is talented enough that he should have moments like a game-winner in Norman, and he knows the challenge is to also prove he can be a star on nights like this — empty seats, only the band dancing for the Dance Cam, and the poor guy in promotions unable to give away all of those big cardboard posters with players’ faces on them.

This will be equal parts attitude and execution. The coaches have been on Foster to attack the basket more, and settle for three-pointers less. Four of his nine shots on Wednesday were three-pointers; two of his five shots from inside the three-point line were blocked.

But if the goal is for Foster to be a better-rounded player — he’s better than Rodney McGruder was as a sophomore, for instance, but not as complete as McGruder became — then this is a good start.

He passed up at least a few open looks to either get the ball moving or better set up a teammate. Once, he started to drive toward the basket but saw that Stephen Hurt had easy position for a layup. That was one of Foster’s four assists. These things are fickle, but Foster has only had more assists four times in his career.

Afterward, the benching was not mentioned. Weber complimented Foster’s play, even mentioning that the coaches needed to do a better job of getting him open looks. Time moves on. The hope is that Foster will, too.

The rest of it is up to him, of course. He may not be good enough for the NBA. But he is good enough to be one of the better players K-State has had in the last few decades.

There are worse ways to be remembered.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger.

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