Kansas State's unlikely turning point

Bruce Weber: Psychological genius? - Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Spo

Bruce Weber's simple, yet inspired challenge to his team preceded a rather incredible turnaround in December for a group many left for dead after November.

A long time ago in a commonwealth far, far away, Kansas State's basketball team appeared to be in a lot of trouble. They had just suffered through an embarrassing loss to Charlotte* from Conference USA, which many people probably thought had folded by now, and a crushing 28-point defeat to Georgetown*, who did not have a Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, or even Otto Porter on their roster.

*You may be asking yourself if this is the same Charlotte team that missed the postseason altogether and the same Georgetown squad that fell to the NIT. Indeed they are. The very same. Georgetown did beat West Virginia 77-65 in the NIT first round Tuesday, if that makes you feel any better. Maybe a little for me.

K-State also stumbled to a 52-38 win over Long Beach State, which really impressed exactly no one. So regardless of what Bruce Weber might have said at the time, it's safe to say there were a lot of worries in Wildcat Land.

Yet when Kansas State returned home to Manhattan, Weber did something to mark what would become an obvious start for a tournament run, whether you want to credit the tactic or not. He gave his team a goal to go undefeated in December, which must have seemed a little ambitious even to the players and doesn't totally jive with a basic tenet of coachspeak: One game at a time.

K-State players started talking about it as early as December 3 (look at Thomas Gipson's quotes) but it was understandably ignored by the media until at least prior to the Gonzaga game on Dec. 21. The first sign that it was realistic, though, came on Dec. 5.

That was, of course, when Kansas State beat previously undefeated Ole Miss (and overrated crazy person Marshall Henderson) by a score of 61-58. Not utterly convincing, especially at Bramlage, but certainly a positive step building on Dec. 1's annihilation of an dreadful Central Arkansas.

The success didn't exactly carry over into a 64-62 squeaker over South Dakota, but K-State hasn't really been high on style points since Denis Clemente left. A huge win over Troy was enough to inspire some more confidence in this team's ability to beat good teams.

Finally, to truly cement Coach Weber's bold and unusually outspoken goal, the 'Cats had to beat the two teams who would wind up as the lone NCAA tournament participants on the nonconference schedule. Had K-State lost to Ole Miss the idea of a 7-0 December would have been cast aside and never mentioned again, but a slip-up in the final third of the month would have made the attempt doomed to fail from the start and just more fuel for the doubters (myself included) during what was theoretically a rebuilding year.

So when Kansas State handled Gonzaga in Wichita on Dec. 21, it was time for people to take notice. Then the 'Cats throttled Tulane and suddenly stood just one game away from achieving their once outlandish goal.

Of course, that game came against George Washington, a talented team seeking revenge from the season before when KSU won at their place. The Colonials never had a chance against the buzzsaw the Kansas State defense had become, and Jevon Thomas and Shane Southwell played beautifully to their strengths a convincing 72-55 victory.

That capped off the 7-0 December, setting the tone for a huge 74-71 win over Oklahoma State and impressive run through the gauntlet of the Big 12 schedule. The difficulty level left little chance for a team lacking confidence, so it's scary to think about how things might have gone if K-State hadn't righted the ship first.

We certainly wouldn't be looking at a 9 seed in the NCAA tournament, something that seemed improbable at the start of the year and unthinkable at the end of November. Yet here we are, and if it weren't for the absurd talent and ceiling of Kentucky, I'd say anything less than a second round appearance would be a disappointment.

It's tough to measure the true value of setting the goal of an undefeated December, whether it just makes for a nice story or it actually made a tangible difference on how Kansas State played basketball. We'll never know. What we can say for sure, though, is that the proclamation made by Weber offers a specific point in time at which K-State pulled out of its tailspin and got into position to successfully navigate the asteroid field.

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