Kansas State was one of the most consistent basketball teams in the country for the first 33 games of this season.
The Wildcats won all the games they were supposed to win, and only lost the games they weren’t favored to win. But K-State picked the wrong time to break that trend when the Wildcats’ season came to a crashing end with a second-round loss to No. 13-seed La Salle in the NCAA tournament.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said this week that early-exit loss went against everything his team was about this season.
“We were one of the most consistent teams in the country and then we come to that last game and we are totally inconsistent,” he said. “It defied everything that had happened all year. We always seemed to beat people — we won close games.
“In that game, I don’t know if we were uptight or we took them too lightly or maybe it was the pressure of playing at home. But we weren’t who we were.”
That loss has been difficult to swallow for the Wildcats, and why they lost or played the way they did is still a question Weber has asked his team.
Weber said it’s easy to watch the tournament now, and see where teams have gone and think yours could be in that position. Had the Wildcats defeated La Salle, they would have had a chance to set-up a potential matchup against Wichita State on Thursday in Los Angeles.
Instead, the Wildcats could only watch as the Shockers beat La Salle on Thursday and advanced to the Elite Eight.
Weber said losing in the tournament is never easy, especially when you start breaking down the missed opportunities.
“Even when you get to the Final Four, and I had that opportunity, when you don’t win it you have a lump in your stomach,” he said. “When it is all said and done, you were part of it — that’s pretty cool.
“But everyone else is saying, ‘We could have gone another step. We should still be playing.’ That’s the way it is. It’s college basketball in the 2000s — the tournament is very, very important.”
The Wildcats fell victim to a trend that started in the tournament when it expanded from 65 to 68 teams three years ago. In the first year of expansion, VCU won its play-in game and made a run to the Final Four. Since then, at least one team in the play-in games has made it past the second round. This year it was La Salle.
Speaking about the challenges of that game, Weber said the first game gives the other team a chance to get a primer for the tournament, while the second-round opponent is left with little time to prepare.
“We had one day for preparation,” he said. “You have to play a 13-seed who is better than their seed, and you only get one day to prepare and it wasn’t even really a day. They played at 10 at night and we had practice the next morning at 11. What can you get done? It is what it is, you can’t make excuses.”
As the Wildcats focus on next season, they have to plan to move on without the services of Rodney McGruder, who was one of the most balanced, all-around players in the Big 12.
McGruder was the face of the K-State program and their leading scorer. Weber said he will be missed, and others — like returners Angel Rodriguez, Shane Southwell and Will Spradling — must step up in his place.
“I don’t think people realize how important he was,” he said. “He is special, there is no doubt about it. He did it with numbers, he did it with character, he did it with work ethic.
“The big thing is whether it is Will, Shane or Angel, we need somebody to step up and provide leadership.”
What can’t be ignored from K-State this past season is what it was able to do while going through a coaching transition. While several schools have done it successfully lately, it doesn’t always go as smoothly as it did for the Wildcats.
“With all the uncertainty, it ended up pretty good,” Weber said. “The team came together, had good chemistry, a lot of good things. Obviously, the last game bothers us -—it is going to stay with us until next year.”
Cats getting healthy
Weber said four players are working to get healthy, and three are having surgery.
Both Martavious Irving, a senior, and Nino Williams are having minor knee surgeries, while Rodriguez is having work done to fix torn ligaments in his left wrist. Will Spradling is still recovering from his chest injury.
Weber said the injury was so tough on Rodriguez that he couldn’t practice.
“He was a one-handed player for three or four weeks,” Weber said. “Will didn’t practice, any contact for a month. That takes a toll. Those guys survived a lot and they showed toughness and resilience.
“If you play at a high level, you are going to have a lot of bumps and bruises. It just happens.”
K-State finalizing 2013-14 schedule
The Wildcats are nearing the completion of next year’s schedule, which includes a game against Gonzaga in Wichita and a trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
K-State will also play a game against an SEC opponent in the first year of the Big 12/SEC challenge, which is replacing a previous series the SEC had with the Big East.
Weber said he would like to play a game at the Sprint Center next year, but also has to be careful with scheduling. Weber said scheduling can be as important as recruiting.
“We are still going back and forth with that, to be honest,” Weber said. “We would like to, but you don’t want to kill yourself scheduling.”
Weber, two Wildcats honored by NABC
Weber earned National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) District 8 Coach of the Year honors Friday, while Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez were named to all-district teams.
McGruder was named to the five-man NABC All-District 8 First Team and Rodriguez to the five-man second team.
Weber is one of 27 coaches nationally to earn all-district Coach of the Year accolades, but just the second K-State coach to earn the distinction since Frank Martin in 2010.