Sometime before Tuesday’s game against No. 7 Oklahoma, Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber called freshman Nijel Pack — the young point guard struggled shooting the ball and Weber needed to know one thing.
Did Pack have anything left in the tank?
“I called Nijel and asked him if he had any pop left,” Weber said. “He said, ‘Coach, it’s hard.’ He’s not the only one. It’s a long grind season.”
With the way the season went, it’s an answer many expected. After enduring multiple program-worsts and loss after loss — which includes a single-season-worst 13 game losing streak — the Wildcats finally got what it looked for on Saturday at TCU.
As senior guard Mike McGuirl said at the time, it was just one game, one win. On Tuesday though, a shocking 62-57 top-10 upset against the Sooners proved more than just a win — this team still had juice left in the tank. K-State is showing what it can do in the future — something that wasn’t seen when the team was at its worst or when fans called for Weber’s job after a loss to NCAA Divison-II Fort Hays State.
How do the Wildcats display the blueprint for the future? Resilience.
“They’ve been resilient,” Weber said. “I’m just thrilled for them. To come from where we were to this week, this last couple of games, and hopefully, it’s not over.”
After trailing 53-47 in the second half on Tuesday, the Wildcats responded with 11-straight points. McGuirl had his season-defining moment as well, knocking down three-straight threes to give K-State the lead.
Even though the offense still has loads of work to do to make shots, at least the Wildcats are starting to get better looks, thanks to the players not settling for isolated three-pointers. It also helps that the guards get the ball in the post more, allowing playmakers to get open and swing the ball more around the perimeter.
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On Tuesday, freshman center Davion Bradford capitalized in the interior, playing a huge role in the upset. Weber called the post “exceptional” after recording 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds. With Bradford on the floor, the Wildcats outscored the Sooners by 15 points.
However, the biggest difference down the stretch is the team’s defense.
“We started showing some of our former teams and how they guarded just to make the guys understand,” Weber said. “I don’t think they understand what it’s about. Some of it is we didn’t have basic habits or concepts. We missed a lot of stuff. Now as the season has gone on, slowly but surely they’ve figured some things out. We’re better one-on-one.”
K-State held opponents under 60 points for three-straight games, which is reminiscent of the team’s of program past. It allows the team to only worry about what it can do, which is play with high energy and effort.
It’s all something McGuirl and sophomore DaJuan Gordon felt coming together for some time now. But now, the results show.
“Honestly, we sort of felt it together coming all along,” McGuirl said. “It really started with Texas A&M, and then just with the schedule we have in the Big 12, you play tough teams, so we were coming along the whole time, and then last game against TCU we finally found it, and now that we found it, we feel like we can keep pushing forward and win some games.
Gordon agreed with the senior.
“We’ve been like this the whole year, trailing at the end, close. Close with a lot of the teams we played, and we let it go,” Gordon said. “Today, Mike [McGuirl] showed up big and helped us, Davion [Bradford] showed up big, everybody showed up big and helped us. Everybody stood their ground.”
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Weber talked about these performances since the start of the season, but it’s just now that they’re finally occurring. The young promise only starts to show, but with Pack figuring out how to impact the game without scoring (nine assists on Tuesday), the duo of Bradford and sophomore Kaosi Ezeagu being productive and with Gordon back in the lineup, K-State fans can finally see what Weber has been wanting to prove all year.
“When we got back from Oklahoma State, I said, ‘It’s winding down guys. Value each day. Value each opportunity’,” Weber said. “For them to stick with this … I don’t want this season to end, because I know we’ve improved. I know it hasn’t been with wins, but we’ve gotten better as a team.”
K-State, and Weber, came a long way from the loss against Fort Hays — or even the 48-point blowout to No. 2 Baylor. Weber went from fans wanting him gone to standing ovations and elongated “Bruce” chants Tuesday night. K-State is headed in the right direction, showing so much promise ‘Sandstorm’ even returned to Bramlage Coliseum against Oklahoma.
But the season isn’t over yet. Weber knows his team deserves to ride this high, but also knows another top-10 match-up occurs on Saturday against No. 10 West Virginia.
“We’ve gotta get ready for West Virginia,” Weber said. “We were not very good here, 28 turnovers. We’ve got a chance to beat another top-10 team. I know it won’t be easy, but I hope they come with the right focus and mindset that we’ve had and we go and we battle our butts off.”