MANHATTAN, Kan. — There were times last season that Marcus Foster felt like all eyes were on him.
Thousands of people in the stands. Dozens of players on the benches. The opposing coaching staff, the five opposing players on the floor. Heck, even the officials were keeping an eye on him.
That tends to happen when you start putting up ridiculous numbers. The unheralded freshman for Kansas State turned into a breakout star in the Big 12, pouring in 34 points against Texas, 29 more against Baylor and leading the Wildcats in scoring at nearly 16 points per game.
"I started feeling it last year about midway through the Big 12 season, that teams started keying on me more," Foster said. "I just tried to stay relaxed and play my game."
It should be easier to do that this season.
The Wildcats lost a few role players from a team that lost to national runner-up Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, but they added a whole bunch of depth. Division I transfers Justin Edwards and Brandon Bolden will be eligible after sitting out last season, and former Atlantic Sun freshman of the year Stephen Hurt has arrived from junior college to provide even more experienced depth.
Throw in highly regarded freshman forward Malek Harris and guard Tre Harris, and the biggest challenge for coach Bruce Weber could be divvying up the minutes.
"It’s definitely much better than a year ago," Weber said, "where at times we had trouble — especially if we went on the road — we had trouble having five-on-five in practice. We just didn’t have enough people. Our walk-ons had to play an instrumental role."
Weber is now in his third season at Kansas State, and nearly everybody on the roster was recruited by his staff. There are only a couple of holdovers from the Frank Martin era. And that means the pressure is ramping up for Weber to produce more when March rolls around.
The Wildcats won a share of the Big 12 title his first season, and bounced back from the loss of several key pieces to win 20 games a year ago. But in each of his first two seasons, the Wildcats were bounced from the NCAA tournament without winning a single game.
That must change for Weber to feel as if there’s been progress.
To better prepare his team to take that next step late in the season, Weber has ramped up the schedule the Wildcats will play early on. Kansas State travels to Long Beach State for a true road game just three games into the season, and then heads to the stacked Maui Invitational.
The Wildcats also visit Tennessee at part of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and play a neutral-site game — if Kansas City can be considered neutral — against Texas A&M in late December.
"I am not sure if all of my coaches will agree with me, but we definitely picked up the schedule," Weber said. "If we are going to be special, we have to win road games."
The Wildcats were picked fourth by the Big 12’s coaches behind 10-time defending champ Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma in the preseason poll. But that doesn’t seem to matter much to Thomas Gipson, a senior forward and the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago.
"Ever since I’ve been here, we haven’t gotten the respect we deserve," Gipson said, "and that’s why we play with a chip on our shoulder. With this being my last year here at K-State, I really want to lead this team and go out with a bang."
It should help that Foster and Gipson won’t need to carry so much of the load.
Edwards averaged more than 15 points during two seasons at Maine before transferring to Kansas State. Bolden played a bit as a true freshman at Georgetown. Hurt starred at Lipscomb for a year and then spent last season raising his stock at Northwest Florida State Junior College.
"We have great depth this year," Gipson said. "I don’t know who the starting five are going to be, but I know the guys that are coming off the bench will bring a lot to the table when it’s game time. Everyone is going to compete in practice and push each other. As long as we stick together as a team and everyone knows their roles this could be a high-achieving team."