If Foster has quit on K-State, ‘Cats’ cold winter might turn nuclear

The fallout won't be pretty if the Wildcats lose the support of their leading scorer, sophomore Marcus Foster, who played just 14 minutes Saturday.

Kelvin Kuo/Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

That old knit sweater that looked like it was going to be such a warm and comfy fit is now starting to unravel, one bloody strand at a time. In a gambit that could be viewed as either genius or insanity — and certainly smells of desperation, no matter how you spin it — Kansas State coach Bruce Weber tried to jump-start the slumping Wildcats by opening Saturday’s Big 12 opener at Oklahoma State with Marcus Foster, his leading scorer, on the bench.

For K-State, it worked. For about 22 minutes.

Foster? The gifted sophomore guard seemed to want no part of it. The benching. The game. The huddle. Any of it.

For a 7-7 Wildcat crew on a three-game losing skid and diving headlong into the deepest, least-forgiving major-college basketball conference in the land, that’s a very, very, very, very, very, very, very bad sign.

The Texas native, who went into the weekend averaging 14.0 points per contest, played only 14 minutes during a 61-47 setback in Stillwater. Foster was a nonfactor (zero for four from the floor, zero for two beyond the arc) on the rare occasions he did see the floor, appearing to jog around at three-quarters speed, playing — and we use that term loosely — as if in a fog.

More worrisome: Whenever the national television cameras flashed to the Wildcats’ bench, the images of Foster were even bigger morale-killers. It might be a stretch to declare it "moping," but he certainly came off distant, reserved, disenchanted, isolated and quiet.

Almost too quiet.

Losing at Oklahoma State is one thing.

Lookin’ good! Check out our gallery of Big 12 hoops cheerleaders.

 

Losing Foster, now, that’s something else entirely.

To think: A moderately encouraging 71-64 win over Texas A&M on Dec. 20 at Sprint Center was supposed to signal a righted ship. Instead, the S.S. Weber has been taking on water again, this time by the bucket. A last-second barrage Dec. 28 at Bramlage Coliseum by Texas Southern (KenPom.com rank as of Saturday morning: 163) in a 58-56 shocker of a home loss drew the wrong kind of national attention. And after turning over the rock 19 times in a 50-46 home loss to Georgia (KenPom.com rank: 32) on New Year’s Eve, local handwringing shifted to small-scale panic.

The first week of the New Year in 2013 and ’14, Weber’s first two squads used home wins over Marcus Smart-led Oklahoma State crews as launching pads to Bracketville. But as the calendar turned to 2015 with the Cowboys in Stillwater, old concerns remain stuck to this roster like Post-it notes. Weber’s third Wildcat team (7-7, 0-1 Big 12) looks like a unit that doesn’t make threes (5.6 makes per game going into Saturday, 240th out of 351 Division I schools), doesn’t shoot free throws well (66.0 percent, 248th), doesn’t block shots (2.5 per game, 274th), gives the ball away a lot (turnover percentage of 19.4, 303rd), fouls a lot (21.2 per game, 300th) and tends to surrender inopportune treys (opponents are converting 34.8 percent beyond the arc, 211th).

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise Saturday that the ‘Cats made two treys (on eight attempts), misfired on five of 16 free-throw attempts, swatted away one shot, turned it over 13 times and watched Oklahoma State drain eight from beyond the arc (on 21 tries).

Although the first half was a slog, it was a hopeful slog: Cowboys rim protector Michael Cobbins got slapped with two quick fouls, and K-State senior post man Thomas Gipson took advantage, draining 10 points as the guests took a 29-27 lead into the break.

But as Foster wilted, the Pokes came out of halftime in a foul mood. The hosts used a half-court trap and point guard Anthony Hickey Jr. (10 points, four steals, four boards) to lock down the defensive clamps, opening the period with an 11-6 run. Over the first five minutes of the second half, the ‘Cats had more turnovers (four) than field goals (three).

The Cowboys struggled and strained to reach 27 in the first period; they posted 27 in the first nine minutes of the second.

Jeff Newberry’s trey with 11:16 to go in the contest pushed the lead to 54-37 and capped a 22-2 Oklahoma State run. K-State guards Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas, in contrast, combined to score 11 points on four-for-nine shooting, picked up two assists and turned the ball over seven times.

Meanwhile, Foster sat.

And sat.

And sat.

And sat.

His body language remained one of distance, watching with disinterest as his teammates kicked off a 10-week Big 12 dance with one foot in a bucket, raising another giant red flag on a roster that has managed to hoist plenty already. If Foster is out of the picture, mentally or otherwise, a cold winter for Weber and the Wildcats is going to start feeling an awful lot like a nuclear one. And the fallout won’t be pretty.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.