On the surface, anyway, Kansas State will enter the NCAA Tournament from much the same launch point it did a year ago: With the same postseason starting five that barged into an Elite Eight run, with the foot of star forward Dean Wade encased in a boot and again coming out of a defeat in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals, in this case a grinding 63-59 loss to Iowa State on Friday night at Sprint Center.
Despite the setback, given the broader view, you can make a case K-State is better equipped for a run now than it was at this stage last season.
And not just because its semifinal loss this time around was without the momentarily harrowing incident of a year ago, when Barry Brown took an inadvertent poke in the eye from Kansas’ Devonté Graham and compelled a horrified Cartier Diarra to run to the K-State bench screaming, “Barry’s eye popped out … Coach, I saw it rolling on the court.”
As it happened, Diarra had seen Brown’s gum pop out of his mouth in an 83-67 loss to KU.
By comparison Friday, the most unsightly moments of the game were relatively benign for K-State (25-8): a late first-half collapse (being outscored 21-4), a spree of missed layups and key open three-pointers on a night it made just 22 of 63 field goals overall and being outscored 13-4 down the stretch after rallying for a 55-50 lead.
It was a disappointing loss to an Iowa State team (22-11) that at its best straitjacketed the Wildcats in Manhattan a few weeks ago, clobbered KU early in the season and could make a dent in NCAA play.
And while the Cyclones reminded everyone of the sporadic offense that could be K-State’s undoing ahead, they hardly diminished the well-earned credentials that suggest the Big 12 co-champion Wildcats are perched for another notable run.
For one thing, they’re going to have a better NCAA Tournament seed than they did in 2018, when they parlayed a No. 9 into a run that ended a game from the Final Four with a 78-62 loss to Loyola-Chicago. After the game Friday, Weber’s best guess at this year’s seed was between a 3 and a 5, and anywhere in there sounds about right.
Moreover, they aren’t the same team they were a year ago. Because … they’re a team that did what they did a year ago and stayed largely intact to become all the more seasoned and cohesive.
Because this is an accomplished, veteran group built on guard play, all the right currency when it comes to this time of year.
“I’m not going to say we’re in the same position,” Diarra said. “Of course we have grown from that. You learn from experience.”
Sitting alongside at a postgame news conference, Brown agreed and added, “We’ve grown. We went through it, been through it without Dean, which is always tough. But we survived and advanced last year and were able to get some experience under our belt.”
None of this happens in a vacuum, of course. As much as anything else, NCAA play is about matchups and hot hands and quirks like how a ball caroms or whistles blown or swallowed.
And, of course, who is simply capable of rising to seize the moments.
“Obviously, it’s not last year,” Brown said. “It’s going to be different teams. The ball is going to bounce different. The shots are going to fall different.
“But (last year) gives us the self-confidence that it’s able to be done.”
It will all be easier done than said if Wade is able to return. But it seemed improbable when Weber said late Thursday that it was best Wade wasn’t playing in Kansas City since it gave the team a chance to learn more about itself without him.
And he said little to inspire confidence in his return when asked Friday about what he expects from Wade, who sat out both Big 12 Tournament games because of what has simply been called “discomfort” in his foot.
“We will wait and see how he’s feeling,” Weber said, saying that Wade reports it feels better than it did two days ago and adding, “He did treatment basically all day today. He will do it all day tomorrow. And then lots of hope and prayers that maybe we find a way to get him back.”
K-State is a much better team with him, of course, particularly in a half-court offense that looked discombobulated and stagnant in long spurts the last two nights.
But the Wildcats aren’t doomed without him, either. They need look back only a year ago to know that … different as they might be now.