Weber, Cats have had whirlwind year

By Joel Jellison

So much has changed for Kansas State in the last year. And likewise, much has changed for head coach Bruce Weber.

On March 9, 2012, Weber was dismissed as the coach at Illinois. Exactly one year later, he was walking his dog in Manhattan when athletic director John Currie called him and told him his team had just win the Big 12 regular season title.

Weber said it was a whirlwind day for him, especially after losing to Oklahoma State earlier in the day, potentially spoiling the chances at a Big 12 title.

“March 9, my daughters brought it up to me,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I totally blanked it out, but with family it hurts pretty badly. Last year was not a very good March 9, and this year March 9, you lose a game and still win the championship, so a lot of change in emotion within that day and within that year.

“I’m very fortunate, very blessed to have the opportunity.”

Weber got that opportunity just days after Frank Martin spurned K-State for a job at South Carolina. Weber was exactly a heralded hire for the K-State fans, but his resume was hard to ignore.

He’d quickly built a successful program at Southern Illinois and then directed a run to the NCAA Championship game in his second season at Illinois. He was well respected in coaching circles and, well, available for a job.

But he was taking over a team that was built on a foundation of defense by Martin, and Weber was more of an offensive coach .

Weber’s motion offense is in contrast to the pinch post style Martin had run, and it was designed to score more points too. But Weber didn’t want to abandon the defensive style left behind either — so he tapped into it.

Things sort of came together like a perfect storm for the Wildcats. A trip to Brazil helped the team bond to a new coaching staff, a practice facility created new opportunities and a five-game winning streak into the NIT Tip-Off had everything rolling right along.

But K-State got smacked in the final, losing to No. 4 Michigan 71-57. Three games later, the Wildcats were beaten 68-52 at the hands of No. 14 Gonzaga.

“It was pretty frustrating losing those games knowing we had the same team as last year and we had the potential to compete against anyone in the country,” sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez said. “I understood it was a process and it was going to take time, but it was disappointing because I’m a competitor and we all want to win.”

Junior forward Shane Southwell admits despite the appearances of K-State playing well in much of those first nine games, in which it went 7-2, they were still trying to get a grasp and figure it all out.

“We pretty much didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “We beat a couple teams just because we were better than them, and then we played a (Michigan) team that was better than us talent-wise and they’d been playing with each other for a few years — a well-knit team, same coaching staff — so it was a lot easier for them to perform, and they killed us, simple as that.”

Only a handful of guys seemed to really buy in to what Weber and his coaching staff were doing through the first 10 games of the year, but then it all came together on one night in Kansas City.

Playing No. 8 Florida at the Sprint Center, the site of this week’s Big 12 tournament, the Wildcats put together a memorable performance in a 67-61 win that turned more than a few heads and earned them a spot in the Top 25 for the first time all season.

It was then, that the storm reignited for K-State, and the pieces began to fall into place.

“After we beat Florida we realized, we believed for real that we were as good as anyone in the country if we wanted to compete,” Rodriguez said.

What followed in the two and a half month Big 12 schedule were even more memorable moments. The Wildcats opened with an impressive win over Oklahoma State, and then blocked away the final shot at West Virginia to hang on for a win.

K-State routed Texas to end January and break a two-game losing streak, and then stopped a last second shot at Oklahoma. A game winning 3-pointer from Rodney McGruder against Baylor set up the chance for the team to win a Big 12 regular season title.

But it seemed to evaporate last Saturday with a 76-70 loss at Oklahoma State. That was until Baylor routed Kansas that night.

“I was upset that we lost to Oklahoma State, but things happen for a reason,” sophomore forward Thomas Gipson. “(Kansas) lost at Baylor and we were happy about that. It was a totally different mood swing and we were happy after that.

“We’ve brought something to this university that hasn’t been here in a long time. We worked hard for it and hard work pays off.”

Weber said the moment on Sunday, when he and the team received the trophy, was the realization of a goal that put in place when they arrived.

“It was cool, I was happy for them,” he said. “The change of emotions from after the game to unexpectedly have Baylor beat Kansas and getting the call that we’re the champs, it’s a good moment for them. It’s something we gave them as a vision when we got here, and now it came true.”

Whether the team practiced in Bramlage Coliseum or the practice facility, Weber said he often pointed to the banners or the wall and the lack of a Big 12 title, or even any conference title in 36 years.

Now, the team will not only get the chance to add 2013 to the banner and the wall, but they also have the opportunity to extend its stay in Kansas City this week into next week, as a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

With a good showing this week in the Big 12 tournament, K-State could get the chance to play its second round, tournament-opening game at the Sprint Center.

Southwell said it’s an advantage that could be hard to pass up.

“It would be just like two home games for that one weekend,” he said. “It would be a big hometown advantage for us, and it would be huge for anybody to play in their hometown.”

But, of course, the Wildcats do have to take care of business this week. They will play the winner of No. 10-seed TCU and No. 7-seed Texas on Thursday at 6 p.m., and both teams are coming off wins.

The Horned Frogs upset Oklahoma to end the regular season, while the Longhorns improved their seed with an overtime win over Texas Tech.

Rodriguez said they just have to stick to the philosophy that K-State football coach Bill Snyder brought to them just days after their Feb. 11 loss at KU.

“If you want success you have to focus on the next game you have,” he said. “One thing is saying it and another thing is meaning it. That’s why we have so much success, because coach Snyder came to us and said ‘focus on being 1-0 for your next game,’ and that’s what we did. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

March 9, 2012, seems like a long time ago now for Weber, and there’s good reason for that. In just a short time, the Wildcats have picked up his system, embraced it, and gotten better each day.

“We played hard, but I don’t think we had a personality, we weren’t very good offensively,” Weber said of the beginning of the season. “They’ve come a long way. We figured out roles, everybody’s improved, and as a coach, that’s what you’re hoping for.”

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