It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Kansas State Wildcats.
Kansas's conference title streak requires no further illumination or qualification. The Jayhawks are long past the point when a college basketball writer might feel obliged to, say, qualify its meaning with context. Explaining why decades of night-in-night-out success is a sample-size accomplishment beyond NCAA tournament glory, or listing the current NBA talent Kansas has faced down since the streak began, or quantifying the overall strength of the league in which the titles were accrued -- these bonus plaudits are no longer necessary. The thing itself is enough. Twelve straight conference titles, dude. Twelve! What more can you really say?
How about this: KU won eight of those 12 straight league titles outright. It shared just four. Oh, and this: Kansas split three of the first four in the run (in 2004-05, 2005-06, and 2007-08). Since then, exactly one team has managed to keep pace with the Jayhawks for an entire conference season.
The team? Kansas State. The coach? Bruce Weber.
Short of "Hey, a team just won its 12th straight Big 12 title," the notion of a Weber-coached Kansas State sharing one of those titles with Kansas is about as crazy as KU streak-fact ephemera can get. And that gap -- between Weber's hugely successful debut and the atmosphere around the program now -- reflects not only how much K-State has struggled since but how pivotal the 2016-17 season, Weber's fifth in Manhattan, Kansas will be.
In March, the same fans who watched Weber share a title with Kansas just three seasons ago spent the better part of March publicly lobbying their school to fire him. The hope? That Weber would be gone in time for the school to hire the hottest name on the coaching market, Stephen F. Austin's Brad Underwood -- not only an alum, but a former assistant under Bob Huggins and Frank Martin. The campaign had a handy hashtag (#BringBackBrad); the volume of responses would have been impossible for the athletics department to miss. Still, Kansas State athletic director John Currie demurred, allowing Oklahoma State to snatch Underwood -- a Wildcats alum and former assistant coach coming off an 89-14 three-year stint (including a 53-1 conference record!) at SFA -- instead.
"Kansas State fans are sure to have mixed reactions to the news," wrote the Wichita Eagle's Kellis Robinett on March 21, and that was a super polite way to put it. Fan site Bring on the Cats had a more direct, John Lennon-esque response: "The Dream is Dead." Earlier, in explaining the #BringBackBrad sentiment on the site, Jon Morse wrote:
It's true. There's no proof at all [that Underwood will be better than Weber]. That Jaguar could be a lemon. But you know what? Your Accord is an Accord. It will never be anything but an Accord. If that's what you're happy with, enjoy mediocrity.
Much of this sentiment was entirely outside Weber's control, of course; any school's fans would have been thrilled to hire Underwood, even without the obvious connections. Yet the intensity of the sentiment was inspired in large part by the Wildcats' own struggles on the court.
After winning that conference title in 2012-13 (almost entirely with Martin's players, an uncomfortable reprise of the dynamic that dogged Weber throughout his later years at Illinois), K-State rode the emergence of freshman Marcus Foster to get back to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14. In the two years since, the Wildcats have won 32 games and lost 33 combined. Foster, and a host of other players involved in a corrosive 2014-15, have since transferred out of the program. So-so recruiting (Illinois fans are still nodding) has made replacing those players difficult, particularly on short notice. Even as the 2014-15 team imploded, it managed eight conference wins; the 2015-16 group finished 5-13. And, after presiding over a top-15 offense nationally in his first season (adjusted efficiency), the Wildcats' devoted motion offense has yet to finish higher than eighth in the Big 12 in points per possession in any of the three seasons since. The Wildcats have not exactly been an aesthetically pleasing affair.
All of which makes 2016-17 a very big season, both for Weber and for the program -- one way or the other. And there is at least some reason to be optimistic. For one, K-State played genuinely stingy defense for much of last season, finishing 30th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. For another, their ugly conference record was uglier than it probably should have been, given the statistical fundamentals (including three overtime losses, two of which came in double-overtime, as well as two losses to Texas by a combined four points).
Finally, most of the core of a quietly improved team is back and comprised of players uninvolved with the chemistry meltdown of two seasons ago. Kamau Stokes will be healthy for his sophomore season; fellow sophs Barry Brown and Dean Wade already have big minutes under their belts; and Wesley Iwundu and DJ Johnson are solid, tentpole-type seniors. With some not-terrible perimeter shooting and even better defense, and a return to the NCAA tournament hardly seems farfetched.
Would that satisfy fans? Maybe? Maybe not. Either way, the only coach in eight seasons to share a Big 12 title with Bill Self will enter a season having been a bystander to a widespread, if unsuccessful fan campaign to replace him with someone else. The context is crazy, and the stakes are crazy high.