K-State exit interview: A season with Marcus Foster and 20 wins ain’t bad

Marcus Foster was the second-most productive freshman in the state, and perhaps the most pleasant surprise.

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What went right: Marcus Foster, Marcus Foster and Marcus Foster. Despite sharing a state with the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden, the Wichita Falls, Texas, native was the second-most productive freshman, offensively, of the lot — and perhaps the most pleasant surprise. A fearless gunner with a smooth stroke, the 6-foot-2 Foster paced the Wildcats in scoring at 15.5 points per game while ranking among the top 10 in the Big 12 in terms of 3-point makes (79, fifth), 3-point attempts (200, fifth) and effective field-goal percentage (.518, ninth). With leading scorer Rodney McGruder and point guard Angel Rodriguez bailing after Year 1, coach Bruce Weber and his staff needed to find a star to build the backcourt around moving forward. In Foster, they have exactly that.

Junior power forward Thomas Gipson (11.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) elevated his offense and became a rock on the blocks, scoring fewer than nine points in a game just five times after Dec. 1. Despite being forced to handle more of the point guard duties, senior Will Spradling (7.7 ppg, 2.9 apg, 1.4 spg) put together his best single defensive season in a K-State uniform (career-best 45 steals and a team-best 1.6 defensive win shares, according to Sports-Reference.com). Weber’s bench was arguably the Big 12’s best, with G/F Nino Williams (6.2 ppg), F/C D.J. Johnson (3.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.5 bpg), G Nigel Johnson (4.1 ppg), G Omari Lawrence (3.1 ppg) and G Jevon Thomas (2.5 ppg, 2.6 apg) giving the ‘Cats the depth to push the starters and maintain intensity on the defensive end.

After an insanely unpromising first five games (see below) that included a home loss to Northern Colorado (Cough!) and a drubbing by a middling Georgetown team in Puerto Rico on Nov. 22, the season was reshaped (and remade) in December. The Wildcats posted a perfect record for the month (7-0), erasing pre-Thanksgiving sins, adding victories over good Gonzaga, George Washington and Ole Miss teams to the resume, and building some much-needed momentum going into league play.

What went wrong: A shaky start and a shaky finish. K-State was 3-3 in November; 1-4 in March; and 16-6 in between. Gipson missed the first two games of the season, and it took a while for a lineup that usually featured two seniors and two freshmen to find its feet. And those same freshmen seemed to hit a wall — especially swingman Wesley Iwundu — as the season wore on. Shane Southwell’s contributions (9.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) regressed significantly after Big 12 play started as injuries and inconsistencies chipped away at what should have been a solid senior season.

High point: An 85-82 win at the Octagon of Doom over then-No. 7 Kansas on Feb. 10, hands down. It was just the fourth victory over the rival Jayhawks in the last 52 tries dating to 1994. It’s never easy against the Jayhawks, and this wasn’t, either, as the hosts blew a nine-point lead with fewer than two minutes left in regulation and needed overtime to seal the deal. KU center Embiid was fighting through knee and back problems, and Jayhawk enforcer Jamari Traylor was held out for disciplinary reasons, and the ‘Cats took advantage, getting a combined 18 points, seven boards and three blocks from big men Gipson and Johnson.

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Low point: Northern Colorado 60, K-State 58 on Nov. 8. Oy vey. Without the services of Gipson, the host Wildcats got whupped on the boards by a margin of 49-40 and shot just 33.9 percent from the floor — and 2-of-19 (10.5 percent) from beyond the arc. For the many Weber skeptics among the K-State fan base, it was exactly the wrong sort of first impression for a roster, and season, that had already opened under a giant cloud of doubt.

Key pieces expected back: Foster, Gipson, Iwundu, Williams, Nigel Johnson, D.J. Johnson, Thomas.

Who’s out the door (or expected to be): Spradling, Southwell, Lawrence.

Things to work on: A rim protector would be nice; the Wildcats are a strong team, but not especially long — K-State wound up ninth out of 10 in the Big 12 in terms of blocks per game (2.97), down nearly a stuff per contest without the services of the departed Jordan Henriquez from the year before (3.59 team blocks per game). But first on the to-do list is getting a definitive answer (or two) at the point guard slot. Is it Nigel Johnson, who often plays more like a natural wing guard? Is it Foster, who seems more like a go-to scorer than a distributor? Or is it Thomas, a tough New Yorker with ridiculous speed, vision and hands but a positively miserable shot (24.6 percent from the floor, 34.7 from the free-throw line)?

Season grade: B+. Whatever you want to call this season — rebuilding, retooling, transition, whatever — it ended as a 20-game winner. Rodriguez’s sudden transfer could have sent the backcourt situation spinning into a tailspin. It didn’t. While point guard ended up as a patchwork deal, Foster’s emergence papered over some of the rustier moments early on. If we’d have told you at Thanksgiving that this team would finish among the top tier of the Big 12 and hit the Big Dance as a 9 seed, you’d have said we were nuts. Whatever you think of Weber’s long-term prospects in Manhattan, you have to at least give him credit for that.

Forecast for 2014-15: Clear, with sunshine on the horizon. This is Weber’s program now, Weber’s kids and Weber’s stamp. As with Wichita State, the ‘Cats are going to play the kind of defense and run the kind of system that should make them salty even in so-called "down" years — after all, Weber has coached, what, one losing team in 16 seasons as a Division I head man? A steady hand at the point to take the pressure off Foster is a must, however that force emerges. While Spradling and Southwell could be electric for four- or five-minute stretches, the best news of all in the Little Apple is that the ‘Cats are poised to return their best two players from the season before — and that’s something you sure as hell couldn’t say 11 months ago.

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