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Trio set to finish K-State career in style

Enjoy this moment, because senior classes like this don’t come around often.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Christian
Seniors Barry Brown Jr. (5), Dean Wade (32), and Kamau Stokes (not pictured) are among K-State’s career leaders in numerous categories. On Saturday, March 9, 2019, they play their final home game at Bramlage Coliseum.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

About 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 9, 2019, the announcer in Bramlage Coliseum will, for the final time, make three introductions that have become so familiar over the past four years, as Barry Brown Jr., Kamau Stokes, and Dean Wade take the court for their final time at home for the Kansas State Wildcats.

Combined, they have played (so far) 375 games and started 338 as Wildcats. And at home against the Oklahoma Sooners, they have a chance to do something only one other Wildcat senior class has done since 1977: win a conference championship. Win or lose, that is a heck of a turnaround for a senior class that arrived when the roster was in disarray and the coach was on the hot seat.

When Brown, Stokes, and Wade arrived in 2015, the Wildcats were coming off their worst season since 2002-03, when Pervis Pasco etched his name in K-State lore. 2014-15 was an unmitigated disaster for coach Bruce Weber, with an awful team culture that resulted in the dismissals or transfers of six scholarship players, most notably Marcus Foster, who later got his act together at Creighton. After the graduation of Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams, the 2015-16 Wildcats had only six returning scholarship players.

The Wildcats, with Brown, Stokes, and Wade all contributing meaningfully, bounced back with a winning season, albeit with a losing record in Big 12 Conference play. On a team with future NBA draft pick Wesley Iwundu, all three freshman led the team in scoring multiple times in the season. It was a difficult year, but anyone with sense knew it would be, and the Wildcats did have one incredible highlight, defeating top-ranked Oklahoma by double digits on Feb. 6, with Brown in the starting lineup and Wade coming off the bench to score 17 points and grab 7 rebounds.

2016-17 was a year of growth, both for the Wildcats and this trio. Seniors Iwundu and D.J. Johnson remained the leaders of the team, but the sophomores were undeniably crucial to the team, providing 45 percent of K-State’s scoring, 32 percent of its rebounds, 56 percent of its assists, and 54 percent of its steals. The ‘Cats again got a top 10 victory, going on the road to knock off No. 2 Baylor on Feb. 4, and the team improved both its overall record and Big 12 record on the way to an NCAA berth after a two-year hiatus. For the first time in Weber’s tenure at K-State, the Wildcats won an NCAA Tournament game, defeating Wake Forest in the First Four, as Brown, Stokes, and Wade combined for 44 points on 14-of-23 shooting.

A year later, the Wildcats continued their climb, now with the trio of juniors as the undeniable leaders of a team with no scholarship seniors. For the third year in a row, K-State improved its record, winning 25 games, including 10 in conference play. Again K-State beat a highly ranked team, No. 4 Oklahoma, this time by 18 points in Manhattan. The Wildcats’ resume was good enough for another trip to the NCAA Tournament, this time as a 9 seed. K-State drew Creighton, and the former Wildcat Foster, in the opening round. As mentioned earlier, Foster really turned things around in Omaha and led Creighton in scoring as a senior, with 19.8 points per game. Brown and the Wildcats shut him down, limiting him to 5 points on 2-of-11 shooting in a game where K-State never trailed. Two days later, the Wildcats put away the ultimate underdogs, the UMBC Retrievers, 50-43, earning a date with Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. K-State had to scrap and fight the whole way, but they finally beat Kentucky, advancing to the Elite Eight against Loyola-Chicago, where the magic run finally ended.

The 2018-19 Wildcats returned nearly all of their production from that Elite Eight run, and despite some stumbles, the team is poised to win the Big 12, just four years after teetering at the edge of disaster. That’s special. K-State didn’t turn things around overnight with a crop of All-Americans. They worked at it, scrapping, and fighting, and willing themselves to victory. And they did it with a core of three guys who started as freshmen, who stayed and stuck together for all four years, who have a chance to leave as arguably the most accomplished senior class in more than 40 years.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a trio of classmates spend so much time on the court for K-State again. Brown is second all time in minutes played at K-State (and could overtake Steve Henson for the all-time lead with four more games at his current average); Wade is sixth (but will move into fifth easily), and Stokes is seventh. Likewise, Wade (second, and needs just three more starts for sole possession of first), Brown (sixth, four to jump to fourth), and Stokes (eighth, but just three more for seventh) are some of K-State’s most prolific starters. All three are in the top 20 in school history for points and assists, and in the top 10 for steals. And with between three and ten games remaining, they’ll just deepen their marks on the K-State record books.

Saturday is our last best chance to show these guys how much we appreciate them. All three of them deserve our very best as fans — they’ve given us their best for so long. Win or lose, let’s send them out in style.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

Barry Brown Jr., 6’3” guard from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Brown has to go down in Wildcat lore as one of the most mentally and physically tough guys to ever suit up in purple. He hasn’t missed one single solitary game in his time in Manhattan. Not for injury, or illness, or disciplinary reasons. As a freshman, he looked like a shooter to provide instant offense, receiving the nickname “Microwave.” But along the way, as his three-point shooting numbers have fallen (thanks to more focus on him from defenses), he has tailored his game to driving and mid-range jumpers. Oh, and fantastic, relentless, ruthless on-ball defense. Brown will finish his career as the runaway leader in steals, already 18.6 percent above the previous record holder — a similarly tough, defensive-minded guard named Jacob Pullen. On top of that, he is fifth all-time in scoring (with a very slim chance to make it to fourth) and sixth in assists. But most importantly — and hardest to measure — his iron will has helped the Wildcats hold on to so many wins that could have turned out differently in the final minutes.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

Kamau Stokes, 6’ guard from Baltimore, Md.

There may be a temptation to think of Stokes as the “third wheel” in this senior class, but don’t fall for it. Kamau is the facilitator, but also a spark plug and solid defender. Kam will finish his Wildcat career in the top three in school history in assists, one of just three Wildcats with over 400 career assists, joining the elite company of Steve Henson and Jacob Pullen. While Brown gets most of the attention for his defensive skills, Stokes needs just one more steal to pass Will Spradling for fifth all-time at K-State in that category, and despite being listed at just 6’0”, he’s also managed four blocks this year. He’s also a deep threat and has on more than one occasion either kept his team in a game, or outright won it, by continually hitting clutch shots from behind the three-point arc and creating shots elsewhere on the floor when his team needed it. He’ll finish his Wildcat career fourth all-time in three-pointers, slotting between Pullen, Askia Jones, and Steve Henson, while slotting third all-time in attempts behind Pullen and Jones. Overall, he’ll finish his career 18th in points, heading into the final regular season game tied with All-American Jack Parr with 1,184 career points. And he’s done all that while persevering through injuries, missing 12 games as a freshman, eight more his junior season, and has fought a nagging injury this season that kept him out of the game against Texas in early January and limited his role in the following game against Texas Tech. This “third wheel” has been incredible in his own right.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Dean Wade, 6’10” forward from St. John, Kan.

K-State fans were pretty much always going to like Wade, a big, skilled player from a small town in Kansas. The question was whether he would be a pretty good player that fans like, or a truly special player. Injuries may have kept him from being truly historic, but few players can transform a game the way Wade can when he’s on. At worst, he will go down as K-State’s definitive stretch four — a player able to post up and hit the hook shot, or catch and shoot from outside, to grab an offensive rebound and put it back, or dish an assist from the high post to a cutting guard. That total package skill set earned him preseason Player of the Year honors in the Big 12. Headed into the final regular season game of his career, Wade is eighth in rebounds (with a slim shot at seventh), ninth in points (with a real shot at Cartier Martin in eighth), ninth in steals but needs just two to pass the current tie at seventh, and 18th in assists in school history (he needs just two to pass Larry Reid for 17th, and eleven to pass Dennis Clemente).