KANSAS CITY, MO – Yeah, yeah, we know, we know. Not his players. Inherited a diamond mine. All reap, no sow.
There’s Bruce Weber, clinging to the lead on the final lap of the 500 in someone else’s car. Again.
Somebody pushed the right buttons against No. 8 Florida at Sprint Center. Somebody figured out a way to outfox Lon Kruger twice. (Hint: It wasn’t Bill Self.)
Somebody had to get a stranger’s kids to buy in, sight unseen, and join hands in that circle of trust.
“Coach does a great job of just keeping us composed,” Kansas State guard Rodney McGruder says of Weber, “and just going out there and playing for one another.”
For years, K-State basketball was almost as much about the sound and fury on the sidelines and in the locker room as it was on the court. The Wildcats under Weber are a quieter storm now, but no less destructive: After clubbing Texas Tech at home Monday night, 75-55, K-State rolls into March tied atop of the standings with rival Kansas, each at 12-3 in league play, each with three tilts left.
And as Big 12 Coach of the Year candidates go, you could do a heck of a lot worse than Weber, 23-5 in his first season at Manhattan.
Actually, to be honest, you could hardly do better.
Unconvinced? Look at the standings. Look close. The Jayhawks? Supposed to be there. The Cowboys, a game-and-a-half back of the leaders? Supposed to be there.
The Wildcats? What are you doing here?
It says here K-State was picked fifth in the preseason by conference coaches, behind Kansas (first), Baylor (second), the Cowboys (third) and — cough — Texas (fourth).
Hindsight makes fools of us all, but come on.
Four months later, the Wildcats are ranked 13th in the nation and on the cusp of history, close enough to smell it. K-State sits just three victories away from at least a piece of their first regular-season Big 12 crown since 1976-77, back in the rarified air of the Jack Hartman Era.
Granted, two of those scalps would have to come at Waco (March 2) and at Stillwater (March 9). Hey, nobody said this would be easy.
“March is here,” Weber told reporters Monday night. “Next game is in March, and you want to be playing your best basketball. I hope they stay humble and they stay hungry.”
Humility and hunger, depth and defense, these Wildcats have become the kind of team you could set your watch to. K-State isn’t so much peaking as it is remarkably steady, having won eight of nine in February and 10 of its past 13.
Of the Wildcats’ five losses, two were to No. 6 Kansas, two were neutral-site setbacks to No. 4 Michigan and No. 2 Gonzaga, and one was at Iowa State, which is straight nasty at home. Other than getting rolled in Lawrence on February 11, there isn’t a stinker in the bunch. Weber’s men are contending for a protected seed, with a chance to perhaps launch their NCAA Tournament journey within the friendly confines of Kansas City’s Power & Light District.
On paper, they also present one of the more interesting profiles in the field. While still prone to painful scoring droughts, K-State’s roster has at least a working grasp of Weber’s motion offense now. His staff not only kept point guard Angel Rodriguez around, they’ve cut the sophomore’s assist-to-turnover ratio (2.29) to roughly half of what it was a year ago (1.19). K-State shares the rock (No. 9 in the country in assists per field goal), crashes the boards (11th in offensive rebounding percentage) and defends like swarming locusts — all traits that should serve them well in the weeks to come.
Yes, it’s Frank Martin’s roster.
But it’s Bruce Weber’s team.
We know what you’re saying: The Big 12 Coach of the Year can’t be born on third base. And, granted, the Wisconsin native knew exactly what he was walking into — a squad that had been to three straight NCAA tourneys; three seniors among the top seven bodies in the rotation. Martin may have inherited crumbs at South Carolina, but he left plenty in the cupboard for his successor to work with. If K-State should go on to claim a slice of the regular-season crown, it’d be impossible to deny the previous coach’s fingerprints, at least on some level.
Yes, Martin built the engine. The chassis. The works.
But it’s Weber’s pit crew.
Skeptical? Look at the resume. Look close.
Weber’s already notched the most league victories by a first-year K-State coach in the program’s history — and with three winnable tilts still left on the docket. The last man to collect at least 12 conference victories in a season? Hartman, again, back in 1972-’73.
We know the jury remains out on Weber as a builder, especially after his previous five years at Illinois drew increasingly diminishing returns. But as a closer? Tip your cap, kids. The man has few peers.
Was Weber was handed the keys to a Porsche? Sure. No question.
And you know what? To this point, he’s driven it faster, and farther, than any Wildcat coach has in four decades. We’re a week away from the white flag coming out, and there’s K-State, bowed but unbroken, holding serve at the front.
“That’s not just a good team,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said earlier this month of the Wildcats. “That’s a great team.”
Yes, Martin brought the thunder.
But Weber made it rain.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org