K-State hoops trending upward but still seeking elusive Round of 64 win under Bruce Weber

Bill Self couldn’t remember when Frank Martin’s era ended and Bruce Weber’s began.

“Was Jacob ever with Bruce?” the Kansas coach asked last weekend at the Big 12 Tournament.

Self was on the spot, asked to rank this year’s Kansas State team among the previous five Weber has coached. Self knew his initial response — “I would say right at the best,” he said — lacked context, so he was mentally trying to flip through the pages of recent history.

Jacob Pullen, of course, would have given him an easy out. Not only was Pullen’s 2010 Elite Eight squad the best team Martin fielded, it remains the best Wildcat group in at least three decades, dating back to Mitch Richmond and the 1988 Elite Eight team.

Told that Pullen’s playing days preceded K-State’s current coach, Self flashed to the 2012-13 season, Weber’s first in Manhattan. That team, led by senior Rodney McGruder, went 27-8 overall, 14-4 in the Big 12 and tied Self’s Jayhawks for the league crown (even though the Wildcats were 0-3 against their rivals that season).

“You know, when we shared the league with them, I can’t remember all the personnel, but that was a team that didn’t beat themselves at all,” Self said. “This team has those same qualities.”

Self went on to praise current stars Dean Wade and Barry Brown, calling Wade “a pro” and Brown one of the six or seven best players in the league. He then concluded by saying he really liked K-State’s team and believed a healthy Wildcat group could give any team problems in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps Self was being deferential or just politically correct, but Weber knows better than anyone that this year’s team isn’t quite the equal of his 2013 outfit.

At least not yet.

“(Self) must have a bad memory,” Weber quipped this past Sunday, drawing laughter from his media audience. “Those (2013) guys were pretty good. Now, we couldn’t beat (KU), but we were a top 10 (team) at some point.

“We have a good group (this year) and they’ve come a long way. If this group can find a way to win the Big 12 championship next year, now you can say that it’s the best team.”

OK, so now that we’ve settled that, what’s the point? Well, the larger issue to consider here is that such a debate actually took place.

When the Wildcats (22-11) play Creighton (21-11) at 5:50 p.m. Friday in Charlotte, N.C., they will do so knowing they’re a competent, well-respected team — one of the best of Weber’s K-State tenure. After two years of success, two years of struggle and one massive roster overhaul, K-State is in the NCAA field for a second straight year and trending upward.

That’s significant, right?

It certainly is to the Wildcats.

“I remember when I got here,” said Brown, a junior who averages 16.6 points, 3.5 assists and is one of the Big 12’s best defenders. “I was a freshman and I was talking to D.J. (Johnson) and he just kept telling me to leave the program better than you found it.

“I think that’s been my mindset, the mindset of all of us since we got here. I feel like since we’ve gotten here it’s kind of went uphill. Hopefully, it’ll stay that course.”

Since Brown, Wade and Kamau Stokes arrived prior to the 2015-16 season, the Wildcats have indeed improved. They went from 17-16 overall and 5-13 in the Big 12 to 21-14 and 8-10 before amassing records of 22-11 and 10-8 this season. They missed the postseason in 2016, snuck into the NCAA’s First Four as an 11-seed a year ago and were awarded a 9-seed this year in the NCAA’s South Region.

“We’re here now, we’re great players, we’re a little more mature than we’ve been in the past,” said Wade, the All-Big 12 forward who tops K-State with averages of 16.7 points and 6.4 rebounds. “We have great leaders on the team. Coaches are doing a great job with scouting reports. Honestly, our whole team’s just locked in, bought in to (Weber’s) stuff.

“It’s just a lot of great stuff happening. Hopefully in years to come we can keep building.”

The next step, obviously, is to win an NCAA Tournament game — or several. While Weber and the Wildcats beat Wake Forest last year in the First Four, K-State hasn’t won a game in the regular bracket since 2012, Martin’s final season.

Critics often cite Weber’s NCAA failings when arguing for his dismissal. Weber’s best chance for tournament success came during the McGruder-led 2013 season when the Wildcats were a 4-seed but lost to 13-seed LaSalle at Sprint Center, 63-61.

“I’ve coached thousands of games,” Weber said, “and to lose that game in Kansas City was one of the most disappointing losses I’ve been part of.”

K-State’s other setbacks in the Round of 64 came against 8-seed Kentucky in 2014 (56-49) and last season against 6-seed Cincinnati (75-61).

K-State athletic director Gene Taylor empathizes with fans who expect more from the Wildcats in the tourney.

“I tell people, ‘That’s our expectation, too,’” Taylor told The Capital-Journal earlier this year. “We want to not only get into the NCAA Tournament but go as far as we can. That should be our goal for any sport.”

The Wildcats hope to achieve that goal this year.

“The First Four in was fun, but this is kind of like the real thing now,” Wade said. “Coming out and playing great competition, like Creighton, it’d be great to get one win and just keep building off that. It’s March so anything can happen. We get a couple wins and anything can change.”

With a win Friday against the Bluejays, K-State likely would meet Virginia (31-2) — the top overall seed in this year’s tournament — for the right to play in the Sweet 16 for the first time since that magical 2010 run directed by Pullen.

“That would be great,” Brown said. “I think that would be a great experience for us, but we’re about Creighton right now so that’s where our focus is at.”

Who knows, but if the Wildcats were to win twice this week, perhaps Weber would rethink his personal list. Best K-State team under his watch? You certainly could make that argument.

For now, though, all Weber knows is that he’d be thrilled to see this group strengthen its case.

“I’d love for these guys (to make a run),” he said, “but they’ve got to go do it.”

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