The vibe always is upbeat at the annual Kansas City Catbacker Family Summerfest, Bruce Weber knows, because the several hundred people who attend love all things K-State.
But he could feel an “extra bounce to the excitement” shortly before he took the stage Wednesday in a ballroom at the Overland Park Convention Center.
His sense proved true when he received an extended and emphatic standing ovation from fans, likely both basking in last season’s NCAA Tournament elite eight run and looking forward to the season ahead with every starter — and then some — returning.
The circumstances should vindicate Weber to any rational fan.
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Trouble is, fan is short for fanatic and rational doesn’t always compute.
So you can bet a stubborn minority is grumbling over what Not Frank Martin has done for them lately … or muttering about K-State being clobbered by Loyola-Chicago with a chance to go to the Final Four … or perpetuating the myth that Weber can only prosper with another coach’s players … or carping about his well-deserved recent contract extension.
It’s all wasted energy, of course, especially since Weber is so clearly a man K-State fans should embrace, not scoff at, and has long since learned to shrug off what he has called “faceless opinions that can go negative, and then that influences other people.”
His credibility was validated by the elite eight run, yes. But that only reaffirmed what people should already have known about Weber:
Without a whiff of scandal in a business brimming with it, he’s a program-builder (Southern Illinois-Carbondale) who took Illinois to the Final Four by coaxing a group largely inherited from Bill Self into one of the most selfless teams you’ve ever see – an underappreciated feat.
And now he’s taken K-State every bit as far as Martin did with increasing traction and momentum.
As assistant coach Chris Lowery said after the victory over Kentucky, “Now, the proof’s in the pudding. Four (NCAA) appearances in six years and one win from the Final Four, why would you not like him now?”
But there’s a twist ahead.
To now, Weber’s tenure at K-State has been all about disproving the naysayers and resolve and adaptability.
Like in the Sweet 16 game against Kentucky, when his team held off a rally with five guards on the floor after three players had fouled out.
And contending with numerous injuries last season that could have been plenty worse.
When Barry Brown was writhing on the Sprint Center floor after being inadvertently poked in the eye by Devonte Graham early in the Big 12 tournament game against Kansas, Weber said Cartier Diarra started “screaming and running back to the bench (saying) ‘Barry’s eye popped out … Coach, I saw it rolling on the court.’ ”
In fact, gum had popped out of Brown’s mouth.
All of the upheaval K-State played through will prove beneficial this year. The Wildcats will have more experienced depth as a result, and, heck, Weber thinks Dean Wade might only be back because of the foot injury that kept him out of most of the postseason.
Where K-State goes from here comes with a different sort of challenge — the anticipation of more.
To now, Weber has been able to deftly play the disrespect card, including last season when his job appeared to be in jeopardy with a new athletic director in place and K-State picked near the bottom of the Big 12.
Now, it’s a different landscape and dynamic.
K-State needs to maximize the moment, especially considering a step back could be looming with all-conference players Brown and Wade entering their last season.
When asked if he thought the Wildcats would be forecast atop the conference by league coaches, Weber laughed and said, “One vote we got, that’s what I heard.”
That apparently was a reference to Self, who told Andy Katz on his March Madness 365 podcast that he’d pick K-State to win it.
Just the same, Weber isn’t flinching at the looming expectations.
The last time he had this many players back from a successful team, in fact, was the group that went to the Sweet 16 at Illinois in 2003-2004 ... and followed with a 37-2 record and run to the national title game.
And, yes, he sees other parallels.
“We’ve even started showing some of our guys some (video) of that team: how they played, the three guards, how they shared the basketball, how they pushed it, how different guys made plays,” he said.
While he figures this team won’t likely have a No. 3 NBA draft pick like that one’s Deron Williams, he sees more depth in this one — including the addition of Austin Trice, a junior-college transfer who was among the leading rebounders in the nation last season and should help the Wildcats address their most glaring need.
Back at Illinois, Weber remembered telling people that team should go to the Final Four.
He’s not quite saying that now, citing the whims of tournament matchups and injuries and such, but he is saying he hopes this team expects to take another step.
“All you can worry about is getting better, improving as a team,” he said. “And if you worry about the right things, good things are going to happen.”
Weber’s the right thing for K-State, or at the very least a right thing.
But beyond the Catbackers, he can probably only cement that sentiment by taking this team up another notch — to the school’s first Final Four since 1964.