Wildcats challenge each other, even if big programs won’t challenge them in Manhattan
MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas State coach Bruce Weber need only look at how difficult it was to build a schedule this season to know that his team, which returns all six guys who started every game on its Elite Eight run a year ago, will be a dangerous foe.
Weber wanted to challenge those guys, rather than give them an easy road like he might a team full of newcomers. So he reached out to dozens of Power Five coaches.
“We thought we could get a higher BCS team at home this year and we just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I had a lot of cuss words on text messages sent to me from a lot of coaches.”
The Wildcats still have a decent schedule with games against Marquette, Missouri and Texas A&M ahead of their Big 12 schedule. But the Wildcats, who began practice a couple of weeks ago and held their annual Madness in Manhattan event Friday night, are still lacking that marquee home game.
No matter. They’re happy to challenge themselves on the road, too.
“We’ve got a big year ahead of us,” said junior forward Xavier Sneed, whose breakout performances in the NCAA Tournament helped the Wildcats advance to the second weekend. “We’re trying to win the Big 12 championship first off, and of course we want to go undefeated in our conference. Just having those goals in mind push us every day to keep going hard.”
It would be easy to grow complacent, after all, given how many games the Wildcats’ core group has played together. All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade and fellow senior Barry Brown join Sneed, senior point guard Kamau Stokes and junior big man Makol Mawien in lending the starting lineup experience.
“It’s very competitive. We try to push each other every day and make each other better,” Diarra said. “It really comes down to team pace. Nobody cares about how many minutes they played. We just work hard and try to make each other better.”
The Wildcats also addressed their biggest deficiency last season — interior depth — when they brought in 6-foot-7 junior college transfer Austin Trice. He’ll compete with 6-11 sophomore James Love, redshirt freshman Nigel Shadd and bruiser Levi Stockard III for minutes off the bench.
“Ever since Day One I found out that this team is very close, you know? We’re like brothers, on and off the court,” Trice said. “So I feel like that’s one of the main key points of our success, and how successful we’ll be this year, because we work on an everyday culture.”
It helps to be healthy, too.
Stokes missed time with a knee injury a couple years ago before missing much of last season with a broken foot. He eventually returned and started throughout the NCAA Tournament, but it never seemed as if the Wildcats’ best distributor was quite as effective. Mawien got hurt during the offseason and wound up missing workouts throughout July, but Weber said the big man still managed to lift weights and put on some much-needed bulk.
“He really worked at it,” Weber said. “I would say he’s 100 percent. Everyone gets worked up and has sore muscles after conditioning, but he’s doing fine and is ready to go.”
Most important, so is Wade, who averaged 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds last season before a foot injury limited him to just eight minutes total during the NCAA Tournament.
“It felt like I played all the hard parts of the season, then when we got to the fun part, I had to sit in timeout the whole time,” Wade said. “I’m feeling normal right now. There’s days where sometimes I feel like my conditioning went down a little bit but … I feel pretty normal right now.”
Kansas State plays its lone exhibition game against Pittsburg State on Nov. 2. Then comes the opener against Kennesaw State a week later, and matchups against Denver and Eastern Kentucky before a trip to the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.
“This group is very focused, very dedicated to being special and it’s been fun,” Weber said, “.. They work really hard and I anticipate it will be fun through this early part of practice and getting ready.”