Monday, December 23, 2013
K-State stringing together wins after rough start
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It doesn't take long for the love to wear off in big-time college sports these days.
Just ask Kansas State coach Bruce Weber.
After guiding the Wildcats to a share of their first Big 12 title in more than three decades, the affable Weber found himself getting skewered just four games into his second season -- after a home loss to Northern Colorado and two more defeats in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
It didn't matter that he'd lost a stellar senior class led by Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez. Or big man Thomas Gipson was out with an injury. Or that his preferable starting point guard, freshman Jevon Thomas, wouldn't be eligible to play until the second semester.
All anybody seemed to care about was that Kansas State had gotten off to a 1-3 start.
Well, look at the Wildcats now.
After beating then-No. 21 Gonzaga on Saturday in Wichita, Kan., Kansas State has rattled off six straight wins. By the time Weber's team heads to New York City for a game against Tulane in the glitzy new arena in Brooklyn, it'll have been more than a month since its last loss.
"We thought we were better than our start," Weber said. "Whether you're in the NFL, MLB or NBA, you have to deal with stuff. We learned from it, and I think we were humbled and embarrassed in Puerto Rico, and we came back and have been playing much better in practice."
That's carried over to the court, where a bunch of freshmen have started to pick up Weber's complex motion offense, and the relatively few veterans have taken on leadership roles.
The biggest bright spot has been freshman guard Marcus Foster, who matched his season average by scoring 14 points against the `Zags. It was Foster who landed on just about every highlight reel this past weekend when got the ball on a fast break and dunked over the Bulldogs' David Stockton.
"I saw I had a dunk so I took off," Foster said. "I didn't think they were going to try to take a charge. I'm athletic, so I just took off and dunked it."
Foster isn't the only freshman making such a loud impact, either.
Wesley Iwundu and Nigel Johnson are both averaging at least 18 minutes a game, and Thomas will almost certainly become a key ingredient when he gets up to speed. He technically became available for the Gonzaga game, but he didn't play while trying to get up to speed.
Then there's the emergence of Gipson, the 6-foot-7 junior who missed the first two games of the season with an unspecified injury, and then played sparingly in the next two.
The big fella has scored in double figures in every game but one since, and he still had nine points and seven boards while playing 22 minutes in a blowout of Troy. Gipson is averaging 12 points per game while shooting an astonishing 60 percent.
"When we didn't have Gipson early on, we lost some games," Weber said. "If he plays, we probably win two of those earlier games and it might have been a different mindset."
Weber said the Wildcats are just now learning their roles, and along with improved rebounding and better defense, they've suddenly become the team that nobody wants to face.
Just ask Gonzaga, which was held about 20 points below its season average in a 72-62 loss, or Long Beach State, which couldn't find the rim with a GPS in a 52-38 loss, or even Troy, which could only manage 15 first-half points while getting routed 72-43 a couple weeks ago.
"I think that everyone has seen how great of a defensive team we are," said Shane Southwell, a senior guard, "and honestly, as a program we feel really good."
After heading to Brooklyn to play Tulane, the Wildcats wrap up their nonconference slate against George Washington. Then they plunge head-first into Big 12 play with a game against No. 7 Oklahoma State and trips to TCU and No. 18 Kansas in the span of a week.
"Around this time last year we got better offensively. I think this year we could be a really good defensive team," Southwell said, "but we are not to that level that we were last year. So we still have to improve defensively."