COLUMN: Filling roles and growing together: how the Wildcats have turned everything around

Sophomore guard Marcus Foster shouts excitedly after forcing an Oklahoma State turnover near the beginning of the second half of the Wildcats' 63-53 defeat of the Cowboys January 24, 2015, in Bramlage Coliseum. (Parker Robb | The Collegian)

Aggravation and anger: two words that perfectly describe K-State’s game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater just three weeks ago.

That game was a low point. However, it also served as the apex in the turnaround that Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber was trying to accomplish, a turnaround that has effectively turned their entire season around.

Excitement and passion: two words that describe the Wildcats’ performance against the same opponent in their 63-53 victory Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum.

“I’m just having more fun (right now). I think a couple of weeks ago I wasn’t having as much fun,” Foster said. “I’m just trying to be energetic, have fun with my teammates, just be excited through the whole game, and get the whole crowd involved.”

Words cannot come close to describing how different this game seemed from the former. This time around the team looked night and day different from how they looked going into that fateful game in early January.

The last time these two teams met, the Cowboys had four of their five starters go on to score in the double-digits. That was enough to easily shut the door on the Wildcats.

But on Saturday, only two accomplished that feat against the Wildcats, junior Phil Forte III and senior Le’Bryan Nash with 22 and 13 points, respectively. The rest of the Cowboys combined for 18 points, a mark that effectively limited their opportunities for a comeback.

“Last time, we didn’t do a very good job defensively on some of their other guys. (Jeff) Newbury, (Tavarius) Shine, (Anthony) Hickey each had 10 or 12 points,” Weber said following the game. “This game, I thought we closed out better, got to the shooters, made the next play, and just an all around defensive effort.”

No matter how you look at it, this game wasn’t just about guarding two players for the Wildcats. It also wasn’t about the play of any individual player. This game was all about the transformation that the Wildcats have went through in just three weeks.

“I think we have some progress (in consistency), obviously winning five out of the last six in the league. In the game against Iowa State we played well enough to win, we just didn’t play good enough at the end,” Weber said. “We’ve made progress and we’re much more of a team. If you worry about the team and how you help your team, you’re going to end up playing well.”

Coming into the Big 12 season, K-State looked like a team on the verge of a meltdown. They were a team that had issues turning over the ball in key situations and communicating down the stretch. Simply put, the Wildcats weren’t a “team,” just a group of individuals attempting to piece together everything.

The loss to the Cowboys seemingly sparked something inside them, something deep enough inside them that they did the only thing that they could: come together and play the roles they were brought in to play.

“You just have to sit back and let the game come to you, I think that’s what we’ve been doing well lately,” sophomore guard Marcus Foster said. “Everybody really is just letting the game come to them, and they’re playing in their role.”

One star that has emerged to fill his role is senior forward Nino Williams. The senior forward, who’s coming off of injuries that have limited his playing time, is coming off back-to-back performances that have seen him score 20 or more points.

The Wildcats have needed his production in order to help alleviate some of the stress on the other post men down low and to create space. With his midrange shot, Williams adds a layer that many teams struggle guarding against.

“It’s just good, simple basketball. (Williams’) shot, that midrange shot, he’s got it down,” Weber said. “Any midrange basketball is not part of today’s basketball world.”

The reason that K-State has utilized this shot lately is simple: Williams’ confidence in himself and his shooting ability is through the roof, something that is contagious to the team.

“I’m a pretty confident guy, I probably don’t show it much but I think I can shoot midrange (shots) or three’s,” Williams said. “I’ve been form shooting after practice every day. I’ve been shooting a lot, and its been paying off.”

Justin Edwards, the junior guard the Wildcats were excited to bring in as a transfer, has also managed to fill roles that this team has desperately needed. Saturday, he spearheaded a trio of scorers in himself, Foster and Williams, finishing with 14 points in his latest impressive outing.

“You get Marcus (Foster), (Wesley Iwundu), and Justin (Edwards); it’s kind of what we envisioned from the start,” Weber said. “It just took us a little longer to get to this spot.”

One of the biggest reason for K-State reemergence as a competitor in the conference is Foster’s ability to be just that — a competitor.

K-State’s issues revolved around Foster letting things get to him. Simply put, the stress started making things different for him and started effecting his decision making. Now, as anyone can see, Foster’s emotion on the court has allowed him to take his game to another level.

“I’m just having more fun (right now). I think a couple of weeks ago I wasn’t having as much fun,” Foster said. “I’m just trying to be energetic, have fun with my teammates, just be excited through the whole game, and get the whole crowd involved.”

Whether it’s emotion or filling roles, the Wildcats are obviously playing in a way that has allowed them to become a legit competitor in the conference, something their awful nonconference performance wouldn’t have hinted at.