- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Former Kansas State coach Frank Martin has been exasperated. Any time anybody writes about his decision to move from K-State to South Carolina, any time he fields questions about the move, he is asked about some supposed breakdown in his relationship with his former athletic director Jim Currie. He denies it, time and again. In late April, Martin made a pretty good point to back up his case:
"I was happy there. Obviously, there's a team in place that can challenge for that Big 12 championship," he said. "We left a lot of good behind. You don't do that because you're unhappy."
Regardless of the motivations, he's right: Martin left talent behind for new coach Bruce Weber, talent that looks ideal for Weber's style and should make his transition from Champaign, Ill., to Manhattan, Kan., much easier than most.
Years ago, before Weber ran aground with a group of players he begged and pleaded and still couldn't get to defend -- Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, and assorted others from the past five seasons -- Weber built his reputation on hard man-to-man defense. Even when his teams were bad, like the 2008 team that went 16-19, it defended hard in the half-court to the tune of a top-25 adjusted defensive efficiency mark (per KenPom). This is what Weber does, what all of his teams, if they're to be successful, must do: defend with man-to-man.
The returners from Martin's 2012 Kansas State squad will be plenty familiar with this concept. Martin's team played almost all man defense last season, and played it well, ranked No. 21 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Wildcats weren't the best defensive rebounding team in the country, and they fouled much too often to be elite, but they did do two things well: They challenged shots (opponents averaged a 46.0 effective FG percentage) and created turnovers (ranking No. 27 in the country in turnover rate). That is the fingerprint of a defense that got after you, to use a phrase, the exact kind of team Weber has spent years trying to build on his own at Illinois.
Even better -- almost everyone returns. Senior Jamar Samuels is the only missing piece from the 2012 squad. Backcourt stalwarts Angel Rodriguez, Rodney McGruder and Will Spradling are all back. Jordan Henriquez, Thomas Gipson and Adrian Diaz will form a frontcourt with not one but two (Henriquez and Diaz) 7-footers in the fold. That is a big, physical team, one that can dominate the boards and guard with strength out to 25 feet, just the way Weber likes. As he told ESPN's Jason King in King's excellent feature, published Friday:
"I even told our guys, 'You can't forget who you are. You won [under Martin] because of rebounding, toughness and defense. Don't lose that.' Now if we can add a little more offensive [structure], maybe we can take another step."
Defense should be a baseline for this squad; offense will be harder to come by. The big, tough, physical thing cuts both ways: Kansas State was a good offensive rebounding team, one of the six best in the country, in 2012. But it turned the ball over too often and wasn't efficient from the field, particularly from the 3-point line, where it shot just 33.5 percent last season. Weber has a system for that, a classic motion offense, and it may pay dividends for a balanced, egoless team. That's always the biggest challenge -- and the one Weber's teams struggled with most in recent years, particularly in 2012's disaster -- so we'll see.
Any way you look at it, though, Weber couldn't possibly be walking into a better situation. He's a defensive coach, borne of the Big Ten, who wants his teams to play with toughness first and touch later. That's exactly what this Kansas State team is. It's already ready. Barring surprises, this team will guard the Big 12 like crazy next season. It will push and prod and poke and rebound and frustrate some of the best offensive teams in the country.
We know this team can defend. We know Weber can coach defense. You do the math. What's not to like?