Last season the Kansas State men’s basketball team advanced all the way to the preseason NIT title game before getting smacked by then No. 4 Michigan, 71-57.
(Kansas State senior Shane Southwell shoots over a defender from Long Beach State on Sunday at Bramlage Coliseum. The Wildcats open the Puerto Rico Tip Off on Thursday morning).
That was coupled with a loss to Gonzaga less than a month later, were games that woke up a veteran team getting used to a new head coach in Bruce Weber.
By the time the Wildcats played against No. 8 Florida in Kansas City, the learning experiences paid off in a 67-61 win.
Weber is hoping this year’s team, a mix of veteran role players and athletic freshmen, can benefit from a heavy dose of experience with three games in four days at the Puerto Rico Tip Off this week.
The Wildcats departed for Puerto Rico on Monday, and are set to open with Charotte on Thursday, followed by a game against Northeastern or Georgetown on Friday. The tournament concludes on Sunday.
After the Wildcats’ (2-1) 71-58 win over Long Beach State on Sunday, Weber said he told the team they’ve already had one loss, and now they have to make up for it with some wins in Puerto Rico.
“It’s a whole different element,” Weber said of tournament play. “Now you are going on the road — it’s not a true road game, but it is new for our young guys. I mean, we are talking about an island, beaches, casinos — everything that you are throwing into that. Charlotte is very tough with four guys back. They are going to test us with different zones. We have to worry about that.”
The field will also include Long Beach State, Michigan, Florida State and VCU, Six of the eight teams won at least 20 games last season. Weber said he thinks the tournament has one of the better fields this season.
With their performance against Long Beach, freshman Marcus Foster, who scored 17 points, thought they set a tone for this week’s tournament.
“Long Beach State was a pretty good team,” he said. “We came out and played hard. We got a lead on them early and we kept the lead. I am very excited to travel to Puerto Rico. It’s kind of like my first away game.
“We are going to be playing some very good talent so we can see what kind of team we are and what we’re made of.”
The first-round game will feature a reunion of sorts for Weber, who will go up against former assistant coach Alan Major, now the head coach for Charlotte.
Major was a student manager during Weber’s stint as an assistant for Gene Keady at Purdue and then became Weber’s assistant at Southern Illinois. After stops at Xavier and Ohio State, he landed a head coaching job with the 49ers.
“He loves basketball, very, very dedicated, and has done a great job in trying to reenergize that program,” Weber said of Major. “He was a very dedicated, very involved manager. He was (Purdue coach) Matt Painter’s roommate. Just one of those basketball junkie guys, helping with camp, doing everything, always around the program, and you knew he wanted to get into coaching.
“I admire him and his dedication and work ethic and his love for basketball. Other than Thursday, we’ll always be cheering for him. “
The 49ers (2-1) are led by Shawn Lester and Pierria Henry, who both average 17 points and six rebounds per game. All five Charlotte starters are averaging double figures in points.
The Wildcats, who have struggled in the rebound battle this season, will be facing a team that’s averaging more than 42 boards per game.
Although the tournament ends on Sunday, Weber said they plan to stay an extra day and do a few activities as a team.
“We are going to stay an extra day because we’re on break and don’t have school after the tournament,” he said. “We’ll hang out, do some things then come back for Thanksgiving. It will be a really good test for us, no matter who we play.”