ST. LOUIS — It seemed almost cruel to ask Kansas State coach Bruce Weber in the immediate aftermath of a close, season-ending loss to Kentucky to turn his attention just that quickly to next season.
The fact that he was willing to do it spoke volumes of his optimism for the future.
“We can make some strides next year,” Weber said Friday night. “Not only get into the tournament but go somewhere.”
That hasn’t happened in his first two years with the Wildcats, both of which have ended in the second round. Kansas State was upset by No. 13 seed La Salle after sharing the Big 12 title a season ago, and lost 56-49 to Kentucky as the No. 9 seed in this year’s Midwest Regional.
But both of those teams were going through massive change. The Wildcats were adjusting to a new coach that first season, and this year had to replace program stalwart Rodney McGruder and gritty point guard Angel Rodriguez.
Next season, most of the Wildcats’ key pieces will return to a program on solid footing. The only significant losses will be seniors Shane Southwell and Will Spradling, both of whom struggled in the NCAA tournament. Spradling was 1 for 7 from 3-point range, and Southwell was nailed with a crucial technical foul in the second half, when Kentucky was starting to pull away.
“We got a lot accomplished,” Spradling said, reflecting back to a season-opening home loss to Northern Colorado. “I feel like we left some stuff out there. The way the season started, it could have gone a lot worse. We really fought through the challenges and turned the season around.”
The biggest reason for the turnaround was the play of the freshmen.
Marcus Foster, who scored 15 points against Kentucky, was voted second-team All-Big 12 after leading the Wildcats in scoring. Wesley Iwundu spent the entire season in the starting lineup. Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas both played significant minutes.
“Marcus was our go-to guy. He has a great future,” Weber said. “Wes, Nigel. We have a good group of freshmen. Jevon is going to be a heck of a player. ... All you can do is keep your head up and keep working.”
Not only will Kansas State return its top players, including rising senior Thomas Gipson, it also will welcome an influx of talent.
Six-foot-11 center Branden Bolden will be eligible after transferring from Georgetown, giving Kansas State a true post player. The 6-9 Gipson was forced to spend most of the season playing a bit out of position, going up against 7-footers like Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, and Bolden should give the Wildcats flexibility to move Gipson to the 4-spot.
“I think I’m probably going to play forward a little bit more, but that’s as far as I can go,” Gipson said.
“I really don’t know. I’m just going to do my part to help this team.”
Kansas State has two more incoming freshmen who could contribute right away.
Tre Harris is a 6-5 shooting guard from Fishburne Military School in Virginia who has already drawn comparisons to Foster, who was overlooked coming out of high school. Stephen Hurt is a massive 6-10, 285-pound power forward from Northwest Florida State College who should provide additional depth in the paint, one of the biggest holes on this past year’s team.
“We just can’t take any days off. Obviously we’re going to get a few days of rest or whatever, but you know, we just have to come in and work hard,” Gipson said. “Everybody has to hold each other accountable. Everybody has to speak on what the other person is doing. We have to lift hard, work hard, do individual things that make us better, so we can be a better team.”
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