‘This program is going in the right direction’: Improvement finally pays off for men’s basketball

TCU competes against K-State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas, on Jan. 2, 2021.

Head coach Bruce Weber tried everything to keep his team’s spirits up in the past months. Riding a 13-game program season-worst losing streak, Weber tried something different before tip-off against TCU on Saturday.

He simply drew a smiley face on the whiteboard — hoping to loosen up his guys.

The result? A Kansas State (6-18) win on the road, 62-54 — its first win in 53 total days.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Weber said after the win. “It’s not easy on us, but it definitely has not been easy on them.”

Now, the smiley face was just a form of motivation. The Wildcats still had to go out and execute — something that’s been troubling throughout the year. Against the Horned Frogs, the play was exquisite. Players weren’t settling for threes. The team was driving the basketball and layups and floaters were being made.

The defensive effort was also there for K-State — headlined by the impact freshman Selton Miguel had against TCU’s RJ Nembhard, the fourth-leading scorer in the Big 12 Conference. Senior guard Mike McGuirl had nothing but praise for the freshman afterward.

“He did a great job,” McGuirl said. “Since I’ve been here, this was one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen. And I saw Barry [Brown Jr.], I was part of being here with Barry and X (Xavier Sneed). This was a good one today by Selton.”

Miguel held Nembhard to 3-11 shooting on the night.

As a whole though, the Wildcats held the Horned Frogs to its season-low for field goals — both made and attempted — field goal percentage, three-point percentage and assists. It looked like a performance of old, dominant K-State teams that thrived off of defense — something that had yet to be seen this season.

McGuirl said that the game felt great in “all aspects.”

What makes Saturday’s win even more impressive is that the team was able to overcome offensive struggles from star freshman Nijel Pack, who shot just 4-15 from the field for the game.

Even with his struggles, Pack still was able to keep his composure to hit a clutch shot down the stretch to help seal the win.

“He had forced the issue a little bit,” Weber said. “I grabbed him and said the next time you come off that, if he’s sitting back, you have to jump up and shoot it and play with confidence.”

Working off of Pack’s issues, McGuirl had his most dominant performance of the season, scoring a game-high 16 points to go along with nine rebounds and five assists. McGuirl wasn’t afraid to get younger guys touches down the stretch and controlled the game from start to finish — something he struggled with at times this season.

Even with his big-time shots throughout the game, what stood out most about McGuirl on Saturday was his late-game management. McGuirl was able to set up Miguel for a three and let Pack hit the game-sealer.

“I told Mike today to relax, enjoy and just don’t force the issue,” Weber said. “I think for the most part he did a good job of that.”

The game against the Horned Frogs finally displayed what frustrated Wildcat fans have been waiting to see — a source of camaraderie and promise to finally be able to win a game. The 16-3 K-State run to end the game proved that this team has what it takes to win games and clears up some of the blueprints for the future.

McGuirl, who was all smiles in the press conference after the game, just wanted fans to know they can keep sticking with these guys for not only the rest of the year but for years to come.

“I’m really happy for everybody who stayed with us. Coaches, players and fans,” McGuirl said. “We know this is just one game but this is a step. This program is going in the right direction.”