Bruce Weber, head coach of the Kansas State men’s basketball team, knows as well as anyone how dangerous a First Four play-in team can be in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2013, Weber’s Wildcats were a No. 4 seed after finishing tied atop the Big 12 in the regular season. Their first-round opponent was 13th-seeded La Salle, which needed to beat Boise State in a First Four game just to earn a spot in the 64-team field.
La Salle handed Kansas State a 63-61 defeat and an all-too-early tournament exit.
This year, the Wildcats hope to flip that narrative. After beating Wake Forest 95-88 in a First Four game Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, Kansas State, one of the last four teams in this year’s tournament field, will play No. 6 seed Cincinnati in the first round Friday at Golden 1 Center.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“A couple of weeks ago, we brought it up to (the players) that you just want to be in the tournament,” Weber said Wednesday. “(La Salle in 2013) came in against us and played loose and free and made shots and took it right to us. So we’re just trying to be positive with them and say, hey, take the opportunity as an advantage.”
That isn’t easy given the schedule. By the time the Wildcats got back to the team hotel in Dayton after Tuesday night’s game and packed, Weber said, it was about 2 a.m. They got up Wednesday morning around 6:30 a.m. and boarded a 9 a.m. flight to Sacramento that took roughly 4 1/2 hours.
Weber said some players had exams to take after they arrived. The team then held a light walk-through practice at Sacramento High School, watched some film of Cincinnati and was on a bus about to leave for dinner around 6:30 p.m. as Weber spoke to a reporter.
“We went over to a high school and their coaches said, ‘Your guys, it looks like they’re loose and happy,’ ” Weber said. “And we are happy to be here.”
It didn’t always look certain. Kansas State began this season 12-1 but lost 11 of its next 16 games – including a 2-8 stretch in the punishing Big 12 Conference – culminating in a 30-point loss to last-place Oklahoma at the end of February.
The Wildcats, though, won their final two regular-season games and notched one victory in the Big 12 tournament – which the NCAA selection committee deemed enough for an at-large tournament bid.
Weber cited the schedule and a few close games that didn’t go Kansas State’s way, such as one-point losses to Maryland and TCU and two losses by a total of five points to Midwest Regional No. 1 seed Kansas.
“Through it all we got our guys back healthy and regrouped and played with a great sense of urgency the last few weeks,” Weber said. “We’ve had some real nice shining moments and we’ve had some tough moments, but through it all I think our guys stayed together and that’s why I think we won (Tuesday) night. That’s what I told them.”
Tuesday was one of the shining moments, as the Wildcats recorded their second-highest point total of the season while shooting 66 percent (31-of-47) from the field and getting to the free-throw line 36 times.
The tough moments led Kansas State’s fan base to level a fair amount of criticism against Weber, who’s in his fifth season in Manhattan after a long run at Illinois. But Weber said he tuned out the speculation about his job security.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t listen to any of that,” he said. “I worry about my own self, critiquing myself and winning games … That’s the only thing you can control, and helping your players, staying positive and fighting through the ups and downs.”
At least one Wildcats supporter, though, is apparently still behind Weber. At one point during a 10-minute phone call, Weber paused to address a fan who had stepped onto the team’s bus.
“Appreciate it, thanks for stopping by,” Weber said. “Wear purple.”