|ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball||[Print without images]|
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- With the game still in question and a sellout crowd of 12,528 fans cursing and hissing at him from all angles, Elijah Johnson stepped to the free throw line with 5 seconds remaining at Bramlage Coliseum, looked at the Kansas State student section to his left and smirked.
"Watch this," the Kansas guard mouthed.
Moments later, with one flick of the wrist, Johnson swished a foul shot that provided the final scoring in KU's 59-55 victory. The Wildcats' quest to upset the No. 3 Jayhawks had failed.
|Third-ranked Kansas couldn't pull away from Bruce Weber's Kansas State team.|
Johnson winked toward his hecklers after making the free throw and then blew kisses at the crowd as he trotted off the court. For the 23rd time in 25 years, K-State fans left Bramlage Coliseum enraged about another loss to their in-state rival.
Only they shouldn't have been.
Not this time. Not this year.
Frustrating as it may have been, Tuesday's setback should be more encouraging than disheartening to Wildcats supporters. Ten months after the departure of popular coach Frank Martin to South Carolina, Kansas State's program hasn't lost a beat.
In some ways, it may be even better.
For that the Wildcats can thank Bruce Weber -- or at the very least John Currie, the athletic director who drew criticism for hiring Weber just weeks after he was fired by Illinois in March.
Weber had led Illinois to six NCAA tournament berths in nine seasons, but a new athletic director was hired, he and Weber rarely spoke and you know how those things go. Things just weren't working out.
Weber was on the verge of taking the College of Charleston job when Currie called with the K-State offer. Fortunate as he felt to land a coach of Weber's ilk, even Currie has to be surprised at how smoothly things have gone in Weber's first season.
Think about it.
How many first-year coaches picked to finish fifth in a mediocre Big 12 open the season with a 15-2 record?
How many first-year coaches achieve a No. 11 national ranking by mid-January?
How many first-year coaches beat Florida -- frickin' eighth-ranked Florida -- in a season when the Gators are good enough win the NCAA title?
There are certainly other worthy candidates, but at this point Weber should draw heavy consideration for National Coach of the Year."Bruce can coach," KU's Bill Self said after escaping Manhattan with another win. "There's no question he can coach. I think he's done a great job. Sometimes [taking over a new program] isn't the easiest thing to do. But he's been very good at a couple of places."
One of those places was Illinois, which makes Self's comments about Weber even more interesting. It was Self, after all, who preceded Weber in Champaign. And it was Self who left Weber an incredible stable of players (including Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown) that advanced to the NCAA title game in 2005.
It's easy to say that Weber "won with Self's players." Heck, it's true. But he still had to coach them. He still had to get them to buy in and develop them and earn their trust. Weber could've messed that up.
|Kanas coach Bill Self preceded Weber as coach at Illinois.|
A similar situation existed when Weber took over in Manhattan, where all but one key player (Jamar Samuels) returned from a 2011-12 squad that won a game in last year's NCAA tournament. Weber has handled this situation masterfully as well.
Coaching offense wasn't one of Martin's strengths. The Wildcats often lacked structure and relied on hustle plays and turnovers to generate points.
Sometime around mid-December, K-State's players finally began to grasp Weber's motion offense and have been getting -- and making -- higher percentage shots ever since. Rodney McGruder (15.5 points) has blossomed into one of the league's top outside scoring threats, and Self opined that Shane Southwell was the most improved player in the conference after the junior swished four 3-pointers Tuesday.
At the same time, Weber has encouraged his players to embrace the defensive principles they learned under Martin, the ones that made them one of the toughest teams to score against or rebound against in the country year after year.
Not many teams in college basketball have played as hard as K-State the past few seasons. That hasn't changed. In some ways this team is a blend of Martin and Weber, and the new coach deserves credit for allowing it to be that way.
"They've still got that Frank in them," said Johnson, the KU point guard. "They still get after us. They still defend. I respect them so much. I see why they're one of the top teams in the country right now."
Make no mistake. Kansas State is not as good as Kansas. On a neutral court the Jayhawks probably win Tuesday's game by 10-12 points. There's no reason to expect Kansas State and Weber to suddenly be able to trump KU and all of its tradition. At least not consistently.
Just look at Tuesday's matchup. Kansas touts the potential No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft (Ben McLemore), the nation's top defender (Jeff Withey), the Big 12's best "glue guy" (Travis Releford) and a starting lineup that features four seniors. K-State, meanwhile, may not have a future pro on its entire roster.
Yet there the Wildcats were, neck-and-neck with KU until Johnson sealed it with a free throw with 5 seconds left.
"They didn't get many easy baskets," Weber said. "It was more transition [points] or one-on-one shots or second-chance, hustle-type-of-points."
In other words, Weber was proud of his team for denying KU good looks at the basket and holding the nation's No. 3-ranked team below 60 points.
Weber will certainly look back on Tuesday's game and wish he'd done things differently. The decision to shoot a season-high 30 3-pointers was odd. Kansas State was rarely in attack mode on offense.
But the Wildcats can still take strength from the fact that they had multiple chances to beat KU in Manhattan for just the third time in 25 years. Not bad for a team with a new coach whose hire seemed so underwhelming last spring.
"Right now [Kansas is] 5-0, but you've got a bunch of people who are 4-1 right behind them," Weber said. "I think this league has great balance. I just hope we can compete to be in the upper echelon of teams."
He paused and then pointed out that K-State had played top-20 RPI squads Kansas, Michigan, Florida, Gonzaga and Oklahoma.
"We've played some good teams and we've competed with them," Weber said. "We're a good team now. Are we going to stay here or are we going to get better? Are we going to move forward, stay stagnant or go backward?"
Just three months into his first season, it's tough to see the latter occurring.
Not just with Weber's team.
But with his program.