Having survived tempestuous seasons, highs and lows alike, player transfers and dismissals and temperamental fans, Wesley Iwundu called himself the “happiest in the room” Sunday evening.
The Kansas State senior has seen it all in his college career, from an NCAA Tournament berth his freshman year, to a sophomore campaign after which several players were dismissed, to a rollercoaster junior season, and now a fruitful senior year in which his Wildcats will return to the NCAA Tournament.
No. 11 seeds K-State (20-13) and Wake Forest (19-13) will meet at 8:10 p.m. CT Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio for a First Four match-up on truTV.
The winner will advance to play No. 6 Cincinnati Friday night in Sacramento, Calif.
“It’s a big-time accomplishment for me, for my teammates, for the seniors, to go out on this note,” Iwundu said Sunday, just hours removed from a joyous selection show watch party. “We’re not done yet, but we’re happy we’re in the NCAA Tournament.”
For Iwundu, this is the payoff for sticking with a program that not all of his teammates did. Some graduated, but some were dismissed or transferred to other schools. The only remaining Wildcats from that 2014 NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky are Iwundu and D.J. Johnson, the latter of whom broke his foot in the 56-49 loss.
The result has meant, largely, a clean slate for this K-State club.
“I’m thrilled for our kids and for our coaches that they get the opportunity. It’s well-deserved,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “It’s been an up-and-down, all-around type season, and they have stayed the course.”
Iwundu and the rest of the Wildcats were, naturally, psyched to hear their name called Sunday evening. But was Weber nervous about the possibility of exclusion from the tournament?
“As it got closer to the time, I became more nervous and Rhode Island won, and I didn’t know if they were in or not, and it could have taken a spot and changed the set-up,” Weber said, alluding to the 11th-seeded Rams.
The match-up provides a quick turnaround for the Wildcats, who will meet a hot Wake Forest team that has won four of five. Most recently, the Demon Deacons dropped a 99-90 decision to Virginia Tech, but they had won four straight previously.
Wake Forest’s unquestioned leader is John Collins, the 6’10 forward who is nearly averaging a double-double. Collins, a sophomore, averages 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. This season, he’s tallied as many as 31 points. He hasn’t failed to score in double figures since Jan. 11.
Supplementing Collins are guards Bryant Crawford and Keyshawn Woods, two sophomores who average 16.1 and 12.8 points per game, respectively.
A dangerous bunch, but one with which Iwundu said he and K-State are familiar.
“We’ve actually seen them play a lot throughout the whole year,” Iwundu said. “They have good players, you know, John Collins is a big man, and they have some other good players.”
Perhaps Wake Forest’s best win came March 1, when the Demon Deacons knocked off then-No. 8 Louisville, 88-81. Collins posted 25 points and 11 rebounds in the win, while guard Mitchell Wilbekin (7 ppg) sealed it with a deep 3-pointer.
Six-foot-10 forward Dinos Mitoglou (9 points, 6.3 rebounds per game) and 6-6 guard Austin Arians (8.3 ppg) account for much of the rest of Wake Forest’s offensive production.
Wake Forest has plenty going for it right now, but after a grueling Big 12 schedule, Iwundu said conference play has provided myriad experience for K-State.
“We’ve been in the Big 12 all year, so it’s nothing we haven’t seen,” Iwundu said. “We’ve been playing against a bunch of good players all year, so we’re ready for this challenge. We just have to go take it.”
That will be the challenge for K-State, the very last at-large bid to make the tournament — but Iwundu said the narrow inclusion didn’t engender motivation in his squad as much as it did gratitude.
“It’s always motivation, but we’re in, so what more can you ask for?” he said. “Any way you put it, we have a chance just like every other team does in this tournament to go on and win the championship. We can’t ask for anything more. It’s there in our face and we have to go take it.”
K-State likely secured its bid with its last several games. The Wildcats wrapped up the regular season with wins over TCU and Texas Tech, and they ousted Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament.
They fell victim to a 51-50 loss to West Virginia in the semifinal, the first time all season K-State has lost while surrendering 65 points or less.
For the Wildcats, the sterling defensive showing is an encouraging sign ahead of an even bigger stage.
“If you’re going to win, you’ve got to guard,” Weber said after the West Virginia loss. “We guarded exceptional…. That always gives you a chance.”
Time will tell if it’s chance enough to move on to California to face Cincinnati.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Kansas State (20-13, 8-10 Big 12)
G: #3 Kamau Stokes (11.6 ppg., 4.3 apg.)
G: #5 Barry Brown (11.7 ppg., 3.2 rpg.)
G: #25 Wesley Iwundu (12.5 ppg., 6.4 rpg.)
F: #32 Dean Wade (9.4 ppg., 4.6 rpg.)
F: #4 D.J. Johnson (11.2 ppg., 5.8 rpg.)
Wake Forest (19-13, 9-9 ACC)
G: #1 Keyshawn Woods (12.8 ppg., 3.5 apg.)
G: #13 Bryant Crawford (16.1 ppg., 5.4 apg.)
F: #34 Austin Arians (8.3 ppg., 1.9 rpg.)
F: #20 John Collins (18.9 ppg., 9.8 rpg.)
F: #44 Dinos Mitoglou (9.0 ppg., 6.3 rpg.)