KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas State coach Bruce Weber left the Sprint Center on Saturday eager to return to Manhattan for a three-day Christmas break.
Weber’s three daughters are in town along with other family members. On Sunday, Weber figures he’ll take them to church. Meals at a few nice restaurants could be in the cards, and at some point, there will be a trip to the movies.
“I just want to enjoy Christmas,” Weber said. “It’ll feel good for three days. I can relax.”
After what happened at the Sprint Center, K-State fans can too.
With 16,303 purple-clad crazies watching from their seats, the unranked Wildcats pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the college basketball season thus far by thwacking No. 8 Florida 67-61. As big as it was for K-State’s program -- not to mention the struggling Big 12 -- the victory was even more important for Weber, who notched his first significant victory as the Wildcats’ coach.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Hired last spring to replace fan favorite Frank Martin, Weber had gotten off to a bumpy start in Manhattan. Kansas State was 8-2 but had been whipped decisively in its only two games against formidable opponents.
No. 2 Michigan defeated Weber’s squad by 14 points on Nov. 23 at Madison Square Garden. And it was only a week ago that No. 14 Gonzaga gave the Wildcats a 16-point scolding in Seattle.
“Embarrassing,” guard Will Spradling said of the setback.
Considering he’d just been axed by Illinois, Weber’s hire had already been met with some skepticism, and it only intensified after those two defeats. It wasn’t that people truly expected K-State to beat the highly-ranked Wolverines or Zags -- especially away from home. But the Wildcats’ overall lack of cohesion, energy and fire was a reason for concern.
“I was disappointed and I hope [my players] were, too,” Weber said. “But at the same time, it’s a long journey. It’s a process. We’re trying to figure things out.”
Kansas State certainly appeared to have all the answers Saturday, when it led by as many as 11 points against a Final Four-caliber Florida squad that had risen to No. 5 in the Associated Press poll before falling at Arizona a week ago.
The victory was Kansas State’s first since 1981 against a nonconference opponent ranked in the top 10. Read that again. In just his 10th game, Weber accomplished something that hadn’t been done in Manhattan in 31 years.
“Coach gave us a great motivational speech before the game,” senior Rodney McGruder said. “We let each other down the last time we played against top 25 teams. We didn’t want to have another meltdown like that.”
That the Wildcats didn’t is a credit to Weber, who is clearly making progress when it comes to reaching his players and getting them to buy into his system.
Just because Weber inherited a team that had been successful under Martin -- K-State won 22 games last season -- doesn’t mean his job is easy. While Martin was a stern disciplinarian who often yelled and screamed, Weber is a more easygoing teacher of the game. Both approaches work, but such an abrupt change can take some getting used to for players.
Weber went through the same scenario after taking over for Bill Self at Illinois and, in his second year, led the Illini to a 37-2 record and a spot in the 2005 NCAA title game, where they lost to North Carolina.
It’s unlikely that Weber will ever be able to reach those heights at Kansas State, where it is much more difficult to recruit, but there’s no reason the coach shouldn’t be able to get his team into the NCAA tournament consistently, which is what occurred under Martin.
“Our goal is to be a top 25 team by the time Big 12 play starts,” Spradling said. “This was a great step for us.”
In more ways than one.
There was absolutely zero buzz about Kansas State basketball before Saturday. One of the Wildcats’ eight victories was against a Division II team, and the other seven were against D-I squads ranked between No. 201-347 in the RPI. Those seven schools had a combined record of 14-55.
In other words, the two high-profile losses were the only things people were using to judge Weber. But after the performance his team turned in against Florida on Saturday -- and the with excitement and energy that permeated throughout the Sprint Center -- the measuring stick and the opinions have changed.
The Wildcats are relevant again. They’re respected. And so is their coach.
“This is one win,” Weber said. “We’ve got a long way to go. I’m not sure the light is totally on with these guys, but it’s flickering right now.”