MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Kansas State was picked to finish eighth in the rugged Big 12, and coach Bruce Weber began the season with even some of the most strident Wildcat fans calling for his job.
They wound up among the last eight teams playing in the NCAA Tournament, and Weber threw a big ol’ bucket of ice water on his hot seat, as they came within a game of playing in the Final Four.
“I mean, it stinks right now,” star guard Barry Brown Jr. said after a season-ending Elite Eight loss to Loyola of Chicago, “but looking back on it, with the expectations of a lot of people, we exceeded a lot. Even though we knew what we were capable of ourselves. I think within the next few days we’re going to take it all in, come together, and really embrace what we did.”
They’ll have plenty of time for that, too.
That’s because nobody that contributed appreciable minutes this season is expected to leave, not for graduation or the NBA draft. Brown and standout forward Dean Wade, the Wildcats’ top two scorers, will be seniors and Xavier Sneed, a breakout star of the NCAA Tournament, will be a junior.
All told, the Wildcats will return 98.6 percent of their scoring, 96.5 percent of their rebounding and a nucleus that played 97.6 percent of 7,425 total minutes this season.
Good luck finding another team that will have more experience heading into next year.
“It takes a lot, you know, just to be here in this position,” Sneed said. “It was great for us, and we see what it takes. And this offseason we’re going to come even harder to get back and go even further. I feel like it’s a growing for me, it’s a growing lesson.
“And I know these guys,” he said. “We’re all going to work hard this offseason to get back.”
You could argue most of them knew what it took already.
The Wildcats (25-12) reached the NCAA Tournament last season, and won a First Four game, before succumbing in the round of 64. Yet the pundits predicted another season of mediocrity in what has become the toughest league in the country, and at-best another fringe stab at March Madness.
But the Wildcats proved their mettle time after time during the Big 12 grind, beating Oklahoma when the Sooners were fourth in the nation, and taking Kansas down to the wire. They wound up finishing fourth in the league, despite losing starting guard Kamau Stokes for a long period with an injury.
They assured their at-large tournament spot by beating TCU in overtime in the Big 12 Tournament, then played the Jayhawks tough again before the loss of Wade set in. His foot injury, which sidelined him for almost the entire NCAA Tournament, was one factor that led to their downfall.
Still, they managed to beat Creighton and upset-darling UMBC to reach the second weekend of the tournament, then took down one-and-done poster-child Kentucky to reach the Elite Eight.
Not a bad showing for a banged-up bunch of Wildcats.
All the injuries and adversity also revealed reasons to be even more optimistic next season.
When Stokes went down, redshirt freshman Cartier Diarra stepped into the spotlight, becoming a key contributor down the stretch. When Brown got his eye poked in the Big 12 Tournament and Wade went down with his injury, Mike McGuirl and big man Makol Mawien took on bigger roles.
All those guys should be healthy by next season, and a year stronger, older and wiser. They also have a three-star guard, Shaun Williams, arriving to provide more depth at the point.
“We’ve got a good ballclub. We did a lot of good things, a lot to be proud of,” Weber said, “but obviously success can’t just stop. It’s got to continue, and we’ve got to — with the leadership of these older guys, they need to keep pushing everybody and take that next step for a year from now.”