‘I hope our guys go and play their butts off’: K-State hoops looks to end season with some positives

Freshman guard Nijel Pack advances the ball against press defense in Kansas State's 61-56 win over Iowa State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas, on March 6, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Scott Weaver)

After a loss to Division II’s Fort Hays State, multiple program worsts and a 13-game losing streak, all hope seemed to be lost for the Kansas State men’s basketball team.

Vibes were off on the court, fans were calling head coach Bruce Weber’s job and injuries were piling up. Fast forward to the end of the season and now confidence is blossoming throughout the locker room — thanks to a four-game stretch that included three wins, one of which came against then-ranked No. 7 Oklahoma.

Sophomore DaJuan Gordon — after a regular season-capping 61-56 win over last-place Iowa State — thinks this team can make a run in the Big 12 Conference tournament which starts on Wednesday.

“I think we can win the whole thing as long as we come in and play our game,” Gordon said. “If we play basketball the way we play and play tough, how we’ve been playing, I think we can beat anybody.”

With K-State opening with 300-1 odds to win the tournament, is Gordon being overly optimistic? Maybe. But with its late-season improvements, it’s an optimism that fans should encourage, because even when all hope seemed lost, somehow this Wildcat team made enough improvements to finish better in the conference this year (4-14) than last year (3-15).

Things finally started to shift when the defensive intensity started to pick up for the Wildcats. K-State hasn’t allowed over 70 points since Feb. 9 against Texas, the results being competitive games with opportunities to win — something Weber has preached since the start of the season.

“We’ve had to continue to be there for them, to help them and be positive. I kept giving them hope. I told them they’re improving,” Weber said during Monday’s press conference. “If you keep doing the right things, we’re going to win some games. I’m just happy they were rewarded for their diligence, their hard work, for them staying focused and never quitting. It not only helps now but also for next season to give them a feeling.”

Breakout freshman Nijel Pack agreed that the change in defensive intensity is one of the main reasons for so much success down the stretch.

“About a month ago, our defensive intensity picked up,” Pack said. “We take pride in that now, especially with the stance and slapping the ground. I feel like we take pride in the defensive side. This is a different type of team with playing defense and locking guys down and not trying to have a scoring match with them. We try to keep them below a certain amount of points each game, and that makes us successful.”

Even with the long journey being made, it is not over yet. The Wildcats will face TCU to kick off the conference tournament, a team it split the regular-season series with. In the most recent meeting, senior Mike McGuirl stepped up big with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists to defeat the Horned Frogs on the road.

Weber believes that if his players play as they did in Fort Worth, the chances of winning Wednesday’s game rise tremendously.

“We gotta defend like we did. We gotta limit their second-chance points,” he said. “When they beat us at our place, we got way down, came back and had it within three. They got those rebounds and second-chance points, and some of the other guys really hurt us. If you look at the stats in the last game, we not only did a good job on limiting Nembhard and Miles but we also really limited the other guys. That’s something we’ve done a way better job. Early in the season, we had guys coming off the bench and getting career highs, guys getting 10 who average two. I think that will be a key in the game, also.”

On Monday, Weber didn’t shy away from NCAA Tournament questions either. Even though he knows it’s a long shot, crazier things have happened in March.

“It’s a big dream and a big goal. Craziness has happened before,” Weber said. “Maybe we’ll start making every shot. You never know. I hope so for our guys’ sake. Right now, we gotta get TCU. You can’t win it all unless you get TCU … I hope our guys go and play their butts off, have some fun and who knows, maybe we’ll even make some shots.”

Tip-off for Wednesday’s game is set for 5:30 p.m. in the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.