NEW YORK — When Kansas State brought in Bruce Weber to take over for Frank Martin as coach of the men’s basketball team in April, the hire was met with mixed reviews, at best.
Some found the move to be a case of settling. Weber, who had been fired by Illinois less than a month earlier after a 17-15 finish in his ninth year at the school, was seen as a safe but uninspiring choice by athletic director John Currie.
The well-liked Weber gave the Wildcats a wholesome presence to fill the void left behind by the passionate and sometimes malevolent Martin, whose accomplishments, including an Elite Eight run and two Sweet 16 appearances in his final three seasons, were never questioned, but whose methods often were.
In the end, Martin’s unwillingness to tone things down and make nice with Currie led to his unceremonious departure for South Carolina, where he’s 3-1 in his first season with the Gamecocks, and that wouldn’t be a problem with Weber at the helm.
Others felt that Weber was hired on the merits of an impressive résumé — which includes more than 300 wins as a head coach — that was an over-inflated result of the groundwork laid by his predecessors.
Weber earned national coach of the year honors in his second season in Champaign after leading the Illini to a 37-2 record and the NCAA championship game. But that team relied heavily on a starting five that included future pros Deron Williams, James Augustine, Luther Head and Dee Brown — all players recruited by Bill Self before Self cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s top coaches at Kansas.
Weber’s Illini teams never were able to reach that 2005 level again once the last of Self’s finds graduated following Weber’s third season. As a result, some have questioned Weber’s chops as a recruiter and his ability to woo players to a remote locale like Manhattan, Kan., given that he never could build a roster that compared to the one he inherited when he slid into Self’s warm seat at Illinois.
It’s too late to nitpick the choice to hand the reins to Weber. He’s on the bench, he’s implementing his system, and the future of the Wildcats program is in his hands.
But for those who lamented the loss of Martin, Wednesday night’s 66-63 win over Delaware in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT did little to inspire confidence that Weber can maintain the level of success that has become customary in recent years.
“We did not play pretty; I mean, that was pretty obvious,” Weber said. “It had been so good for us at home and we had defended so well, made shots, and the games came easy. Now it didn’t come quite as easy.”
The team Weber took over at Kansas State is a group made up almost exclusively of Martin holdovers. The Wildcats returned 12 players from last year’s team, including four starters, and K-State has just one freshman, forward D.J. Johnson, playing considerable minutes.
But in the first true test of the season after routes of North Dakota, Lamar, Alabama-Huntsville and North Florida, K-State didn’t play like the veteran tournament team it is.
The Wildcats shot 38.5 percent from the field, including a horrid 30.3 percent in the first half, and allowed Delaware guard Devon Saddler to torch their defense for 32 points. The difference in the game was a 15-5 second-half run, which K-State made while Blue Hens big man Jamelle Hagins was sidelined with cramps.
Hagins, who had 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting to go with 15 rebounds and three blocks before the cramps hit, missed most of the second half, and had he been able to play, Delaware might’ve come out on top.
“He’s our rock; he’s our guy in there,” Delaware coach Monte Ross said. “He’s our guy out there that when we need a bucket, we throw it to him. When we need a rebound, he gets it. When we need a key block, he blocks it. When you take away one of your hearts and souls, we’re not built to just, ‘OK, you go ahead and replace Jamelle.’ So it was a big deal for us.”
The Wildcats entered Wednesday’s game with 11 guys averaging at least 14 minutes per game and no one playing more than 24. They used a more traditional rotation against Delaware, but it didn’t seem to impact their ability to spread the ball around the floor.
Angel Rodriguez, the leading scorer among 10 K-State players scoring between five and 11 points per night, was one of three Wildcats to lead the team with 12 points. Rodney McGruder and Shane Southwell each added eight points, and every Wildcats player who saw the floor grabbed at least one rebound, with McGruder and Thomas Gipson leading the way with six boards each.
After the game, Weber said he wants depth to become part of his team’s “brand.” But against Delaware, K-State looked like a team that was balanced because it didn’t know who was supposed to take the lead, not because it has too much talent to depend on one guy to do the work.
It’s certainly possible that some of K-State’s uninspiring showing against the Blue Hens could be tied to the team’s lack of familiarity with Weber. An adjustment period is to be expected when a team is faced with a new coach.
Or maybe it was just an off night for the Wildcats, who will face No. 4 Michigan on Friday in the tournament championship, looking to improve to 6-0.
One thing’s for sure: Friday’s final against the Wolverines will tell us a lot about what to expect from this K-State team, and if nothing else, it’ll serve as either early validation of the Wildcats’ choice to bring in Weber, or further evidence that they let the right guy walk out the door.
“If you want to be good, you have to play good teams and learn,” Weber said. “(For) our kids to play against top competition, it’s a valuable tool. Hopefully we’ll play a little more relaxed, keep playing hard, do the things we’ve done all year, and we’ll see what happens.”