The Kansas State men’s basketball team has had a bit of a rollercoaster ride this season.
They began the season with a No. 12 preseason ranking and a threat to challenge the 14-straight defending Big 12 Conference champions, the Kansas Jayhawks. At the beginning of the season, head coach Bruce Weber thought this was a team that should have been ranked in the preseason top 10.
The men’s team started the season 6-0 by defeating Kennesaw State on Nov. 9, the University of Denver on Nov. 12, Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 16, Penn University on Nov. 18, the University of Missouri on Nov. 19 and Lehigh on Nov. 24.
Then, to begin December, they had two meaningful away games against Marquette and Tulsa — and they lost them both. At the following press conference, senior forward Dean Wade said that they probably didn’t deserve to be ranked after that two-week stretch for how they played. He described it as, “a rough two weeks of basketball.”
This dropped the team’s season record to 6-2 from the road trip. But Wade wasn’t concerned about those two losses and no longer being ranked. He also said at that press conference he knew that going on the road would help this team in the long run, and that this was a great team that was “going to be hard to stop” when they figured things out and put the pieces together.
The Wildcats bounced back and won their next five games; their most notable win against Vanderbilt came on Dec. 22. They also survived a scare from George Mason, 59-58, on Dec. 29 to improve their record to 10-2 before heading into conference play.
The Wildcats then started conference play 0-2 with losses to Texas on Jan. 2 and Texas Tech on Jan. 5. They needed to find some way to come back before the season was too far gone.
In the next game on Jan. 9 against the West Virginia Mountaineers, the Wildcats were down once again 36-21, making both the team and Weber sound foolish for their preseason comments.
During halftime, senior guard Barry Brown called for a players-only meeting and sent a strong message to the team that was shared to reporters by sophomore guard Mike McGuirl after the game: “If you don’t think you can win, don’t even try to get into the game.”
That not only sparked the largest comeback in school history, in a 71-69 victory over the Mountaineers, but it also set the team on fire for the next few games.
That comeback win, followed by a victory against the Iowa State Cyclones on Jan. 12, had the Wildcats right back into the mix of the Big 12 Conference race. A win over the Oklahoma Sooners on Jan. 16 and the TCU Horned Frogs on Jan. 19 got the Wildcats into a four-way tie for first place in the Big 12.
After the TCU game, Weber shared that Stokes had told him a couple of weeks ago that he wanted to compete for the Big 12 Championship, and Weber said he didn’t tell Stokes this, but he thought, “I want to win a game.”
The Wildcats’ following matchup against No. 14 Texas Tech on Jan. 22 was a major matchup for the Wildcats to show how good they really were, and they took full advantage, holding the Red Raiders to their season low of 45 points in a 58-45 victory.
After the game, Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard said that K-State is the best defense in the Big 12 and a dangerous team.
“[K-State] is one of the best teams in the country,” Beard said. “They returned five starters from an Elite Eight team. They have character and DNA that is showed by how they bounced back from their 0-2 start, along with great leadership. Coach [Weber] has taken teams to the Final Fours and the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis. They are one of the best teams in college basketball.”
This team has put itself in position to accomplish something special this season as they share the first place ranking in the Big 12 with KU. On Saturday, they will face Texas A&M. The following Saturday, Feb. 2, they will take on Oklahoma State before they host the in-state rival KU Jayhawks on Feb. 5.
It now seems that the Wildcats have figured things out and put the pieces together.
“We knew all along that we are a good team,” Wade said. “It was just a matter of time for us to show it.”