MANHATTAN — The euphoria that came with winning a share of its first regular-season conference title in nearly four decades wore off quickly at Kansas State.
That tends to happen when a team is dumped by a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament.
All the goodwill that Bruce Weber earned during his first season in Manhattan dissipated when Angel Rodriguez’s last-second shot glanced off the rim and the fourth-seeded Wildcats were sent packing in the second round in March. That missed shot, rather than any of its success, became the lasting image for a 27-8 team that won its first league title since 1977.
Now, the Wildcats are forced to rebuild after losing top scorer Rodney McGruder and 7-footer Jordan Henriquez to graduation, and after Rodriguez decided to transfer to Miami.
“Here in this building, the expectations are still the same,” said Shane Southwell, the Wildcats’ top returning scorer. “Last year, outside of this locker room, no one had us winning the Big 12. That is just an expectation here.”
It won’t be an easy task with Oklahoma State returning the majority of its high-powered team, and with rival Kansas bringing in arguably its best recruiting class under coach Bill Self.
The Wildcats will also be relying heavily on newcomers, even though they don’t carry the same gravitas as the guys suiting up down Interstate 70. McGruder and Rodriguez combined to score 27 points per game, and that scoring will have to come from somewhere else this season.
Shooting guard Marcus Foster comes into the program with a reputation for being a gifted scorer, and 6-foot-6 swingman Wesley Iwundu should create matchup problems. Nigel Johnson could be in the mix at point guard by the season opener Nov. 8 against Northern Colorado.
“Right now, we’re just trying to bring it all together, because we haven’t been together,” Foster said. “We have a bunch of new guys, a bunch of talent. So right now we’re just trying to bring it together so we’ll be ready for the first game.”
Everything coming together will be critical if the Wildcats want to repeat as Big 12 champs this season. Here are five other things to keep in mind:
• SOUTHWELL SHINES: Southwell emerged late in the season as a dead-eye perimeter shooter — he hit 43.6 percent from beyond the arc — and will be the go-to scorer early in the season. “In practice, Shane is always that guy, late in games, when games get close, the ball will probably be in his hands,” Iwundu said. “And we have to understand, it’s his time right now. When things get a little rough, we’re going to look to Shane to calm things down a little bit.”
• WILL I AM: Will Spradling has been starting games since his freshman season. Now, the senior will be asked to run the point — he’s normally a shooting guard — until touted freshman Jevon Thomas becomes eligible at the semester. “The biggest problem my sophomore year was that I was turning it over too much at the point guard position,” he said. “Last year, I did a great job of taking care of the ball and this year I have to do the same thing.”
• BIG MAN: Thomas Gipson is listed at 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, but the junior forward actually slimmed down this season. He’s hoping that will give him the stamina to play longer in games, and help absorb the departure of Henriquez, their best interior defender last season.
• EXPERIENCE COUNTS: Weber said the biggest key to challenging conference heavyweights such as Kansas and Oklahoma State will be his veterans, including Southwell, Spradling and Gipson. That trio played important minutes last season, and they’ll be counted on to help nurture a young but talented freshman class. “The biggest thing is with this older group, they have to come every day and give us something,” Weber said. “If they can do that, I think we have a chance.”
• TOUGH TESTS: The Wildcats are scheduled to play in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where there’s a good chance they’ll line up against Georgetown. They also play Ole Miss as part of the Big 12-SEC challenge, and then face perennial contender Gonzaga on a “neutral floor” in Wichita. “You put your own pressure on,” Weber said. “All we are worried about is our (season opener) against Northern Colorado — that is all I am focused on — and then getting better. If that happens we will be competitive by the time we get into the second half of the season.”