Surprised by Frank Martin and South Carolina? You shouldn’t be

When a team makes a Final Four for the first time ever – heck, when it wins an NCAA Tournament game for the first time ever – surprise is part of the expected reaction.

So it has been for the South Carolina Gamecocks and their head coach, Frank Martin, who have become a Tournament darling, especially after dismantling love-to-hate Duke and beating up Baylor along the way. (The darling label also was helped when Martin honored a Sports Illustrated for Kids child reporter’s perfect question and another time commented about today’s adults being the problem in society instead of kids.)

The extended run has even provided enough time for national reporter Bill Reiter to dive (again) into why Frank Martin isn’t at Kansas State anymore and opine (again) that the University of Tennessee is riding John Currie’s ego into administrative hell, probably.

Indeed, from wins to the podium to media good feels, Martin has had a perfect tournament. He has basked in its stature-building spotlight and only kind of had to share it with Gonzaga and Oregon. (Nobody has really even mentioned Final Four old-hat North Carolina, which might be scary.) Nope, this week has deservedly mostly belonged to Martin, who has appeared more ready than ever to, as he has said in the past he tells his players, “live in the moment.”

Having covered Martin’s tenure up close at Kansas State from start to finish, it’s intriguing to watch the man now and think he was this close to this year perhaps being his second Final Four.

In the 2009-10 season, Martin coached the fastest point guard in America in Denis Clemente and had him paired with K-State’s future all-time leading scorer, Jacob Pullen. Curtis Kelly was silky smooth and sneakily tough on the glass, while Dominique Sutton was the kind of guy a 15-year-old Sindarius Thornwell should have been dreaming to play like some day. Luis Colon provided some anchor toughness in the post, while Jamar Samuels was a pogo stick around the rim on both ends of the floor. The third senior in the three-man class with Clemente and Colon, Chris Merriewether averaged less than 1 point per game and 1.4 rebounds, but he appeared in 33 games because he poured his life into his eight minutes per game.

In that vein, every one of them (and several others) played exactly the kind of intensity and defense people are now losing their minds over with the Gamecocks. And, just like South Carolina now, it served K-State well. After handling North Texas, the Wildcats saw Pullen outduel Jimmer Fredette and No. 7 seed BYU. Then, in one of the greatest Tournament games ever played, K-State outlasted Jordan Crawford and No. 6 Xavier, 101-96, in double overtime. Just two days later, No. 5 Butler upended K-State’s run in a game where it was impossible not to wonder about fatigue.

“I’m sure we would of had a better chance [of making the Final Four]. We played a lot of basketball against Xavier,” Curtis Kelly told me this week. “As the [Butler] game went on, though, I can tell the overtime took a toll more then I gave it credit for.

“Butler was a great team, with a really good pro player in Gordon Hayward. So I’m glad we lost that year to a team that made it all the way.”

It’s impossible to say, of course, whether the double OT really was the ultimate factor that kept Martin and K-State out of the Final Four. But, considering K-State had beaten Xavier earlier by 15 that season in Manhattan, it’s hard not to seriously consider.

Back to the present, though, and Martin’s core fire is just as hot now as it was then. The love for his players also is there just the same. However, the same coach who once said in postgame about that 2010 KSU squad (following a Big 12 Conference win over Texas), “If they don’t come in ready to work tomorrow, I will destroy them,” now appears to have settled into understanding the fire doesn’t have to be an earth-scorching inferno all the time.

Tiredness aside, it makes you wonder if that added maturity is the last little something that might have been missing seven years ago in Manhattan but will be enough to propel Martin and his current group all the way. After all, the overall approach has gotten this team, a No. 7 seed that hasn’t been ranked in the AP Poll since Feb. 13, this far.

South Carolina is talented. It is tough. It is battle-tested. It offensive rebounds you into submission, and it can shoot the 3. And the defense, of course, is ferocious. Most of that is the result of its head coach believing in his guys and refusing to allow them to believe less. (Even if people like me believe far less – as recently as earlier this year.)

That’s a really scary, proven-winner combination if you’re the on the other side, and if it so happens that the Gamecocks make the National Final, nobody should be all that surprised. Not if they have been paying attention.

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K-State fans gave Dana Altman same support they now give Bruce Weber

News broke Monday that Kansas State would retain Bruce Weber for the 2017-18 season.

Unless you’re an unlucky soul in need of a cranial extraction from a certain cavity, you can guess the resigned but loud reaction that followed for the growing number of fans who swear they are finished with the men’s basketball program — attendance, donations, etc. — until Weber is gone.

K-State fans once withdrew massive support for Final Four Oregon coach Dana Altman … in only his second season leading the Wildcats.

What I wonder is how many of those fans were the same ones, or perhaps brought up in the homes of fans back in the day, who begged for Dana Altman to be replaced less than two years into his tenure almost 30 years ago.

Wait … what happened? Surely, you jest.

I don’t jest, and don’t call me Shirley.

It’s true. A fresh-faced Dana Altman was hired to replace Lon Kruger, who unceremoniously dumped the Wildcats for Florida and left a depleted roster. K-State fans, who were much more used to high levels of success 25 years ago, gave Kruger permanent God status while giving Altman one year and a short deck to deal a winning hand, which of course didn’t happen.

K-State finished last in the Big 8 Conference for the first time ever, and fans let their standalone-mustachioed leader have it by withdrawing their support by refusing to attend games. According to an Associated Press story dated Feb. 5, 1992:

“… already twice this season, fewer than 6,000 fans have showed up at Bramlage, which opened in 1989. Bramlage seats 13,500, and attendance is averaging about 7,800.” 

History is written only by those who remain, and the popular, hands-washed, K-State revisionist edition is that Altman simply wasn’t ready to be a coach at the Big 8 level. Maybe or even probably a good part of that is true, but if he wasn’t getting any real support from nearly the start? It’s convenient to build a home without nails and then blame its collapse on the person who happened to live in it at the time.

And so, that’s when things really began to turn from a bit messy to completely gross.

Feeling pressured (but no so much that it was willing or could afford to overcome serious athletic department debt and pay for quality leadership), K-State was turned down by Tubby Smith before whistling The Offspring’s “No Self Esteem” and hiring Tom Asbury, who waited to see if Iowa State would come open before accepting the K-State gig.

“I didn’t want to make any snap decisions,” he said at the time.

(Now I know I’m being used. That’s okay, man, ’cause I like the abuse…)

Eventually, the California tan paled and support shrank over the next six years, and Asbury was let go after going 85-88. At the time, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported Asbury was the lowest paid coach in the Big 8. That trend didn’t change as K-State again went on the cheap, offering Jim Wooldridge approximately $400,000 to be a program savior. That figure ranked near the bottom of the league as well, but it didn’t stop then athletic director Max Urick from saying Wooldridge was “a fantastic recruiter and had a history of being a turnaround artist…”*

*The really fun part about that salary figure is that it was about $50,000 less than what future Wildcats assistant Dalonte Hill would make annually simply because he pulled the Michael Beasley puppet strings. That comparison does a fantastic job at painting just how out of touch K-State admins prior to 2006-07 were with regard to the cost of recapturing the success they and the fan base felt they were entitled to. 

We know how that ended before Bob Huggins, Frank Martin, Brad Underwood and the rest of the cavalry arrived.

Back to the present, and K-State fans are gnashing their teeth over this week’s Final Four, which includes a coach they had but didn’t want, and another they had and finally wanted but lost because of an overzealous, short-timing NCAA compliance officer who masquerades as an athletic director.

Life, you and your ironies just suck sometimes.

Anyways, here’s hoping that fans realize not supporting the program never works, though the present day seems to show the “Altman withdrawal” has resurfaced. And also, here’s hoping the yet-to-be-named director of athletics uses the now-full coffers, when the time is right, to get K-State back in the real arms race again.

Former K-State guard Nigel Johnson transferring … again; Jevon Thomas, Tre Harris also need new homes

Quick late-day news out of New Jersey as former Kansas State Wildcats guard Nigel Johnson is transferring, again, this time from Rutgers.

According to a school-issued release Friday afternoon, Johnson informed the coaching staff that he intends to earn his undergraduate degree and transfer. He has been granted his release.

“We appreciate Nigel’s contributions to our program,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “We support his decision and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

The redshirt junior guard joined Rutgers two seasons ago as part of a massive roster depletion at K-State. Announcing his decision on Twitter, Johnson was the fourth player to leave Bruce Weber’s program at the time after Marcus Foster and Tre Harris were dismissed and Jevon Thomas also decided to transfer.

Johnson isn’t the only one in that controversial group that didn’t settle at his next stop. 

Harris, citing personal reasons, split with SIU-Edwardsville in December despite leading the team in scoring. Thomas quit Seton Hall in February after being suspended the first semester. The suspension came after Thomas reportedly grabbed a graduate assistant around the neck in a fight during an intramural game.

Malek Harris also was dismissed in the roster purge and spent the past year playing for NCAA Division II Kentucky Wesleyan. 

(Thanks to DP for the tip on the updates!)

No booze for old men (or anyone) at NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

So, check your TVs tonight for any and all alcohol commercials during the NCAA Tournament. 

Curious to see if they run because host sites aren’t pouring even beer  even by halftime of the Oregon / Michigan game … as I found out just now at Sprint Center in Kansas City. 

Booooooooooo.

K-State basketball: Disgruntled fan’s pipe dream

This quote from Twitter, which came in a conversation thread regarding Bruce Weber, caught my eye on Monday because it is the quintessential disgruntled Kansas State Wildcats basketball fan’s coaching pipe dream in a nutshell.

“whoever we get, i want it to be someone who will stay forever & be successful, and fill up the octagon, make it a tough place to win.”

Undeterred by the latest examples of extreme rise-and-falls (Tom Crean) and loyal-until-tomorrows (Brad Underwood), and fueled by watching their former coach make another Sweet 16 (Frank Martin), the fans who want so badly for K-State to make a coaching move (as the poll following the Cincinnati loss suggests) are frothing even more today. They’re just sure they’re missing out on …

whoever we get.

And when that “whoever” shows up, it’ll be a “no more Bruceketball!” party and long honeymoon as the wins start to flow with Weber’s former players, which proves he wasn’t the guy to break through with this roster despite an upward trend. Or maybe the losses come instead, but that’s okay because the new staff obviously needs time to dismantle Weber’s obviously crappy work.

In either case, that guy will get all the time needed to “fix” things because those fans will have given their heart to him in hopes that their new rebound “whoever” …

“will stay forever and be successful …”

And that coach should be successful because those fans who were so steadfast in withholding their support from Bruce Weber will now flock to games – regardless of results (because that’s how this “not Bruce” thing will work, right?) …

and fill up the octagon, make it a tough place to win.”

Early on at least, this new “whoever” will need and deserve fans’ help in building a home court advantage that possibly leads to a few more key home wins – wins those same fans felt the last coach needed to get without their help because he should have to prove something to them first.

All of this totally seems fair, doesn’t it?

I guess you just hope “whoever” actually gets the kind of one-direction support needed to succeed – something that has embarrassingly been lacking for a couple of years now at KSU. It’s one thing to question, but to outright boycott a team that hasn’t really given reason to do so? That does nobody – players, coaches, administration, or even the fans themselves – any favors.

After Cincy loss, 30-year K-State season ticket holder is done

So, here we are … the end of the season.

We knew we’d get here eventually, even if it was a game or two longer than a solid minority of Kansas State fans wanted. And, the end came in the exact fashion they had been salivating over: overmatched and out-toughed by Cincinnati like a big brother holding his little bro’s head under his armpit for an NCAA-sized noogie.

Losing in the NCAA Tournament never leaves a good feeling – the finality of it all and other things – but this one is obviously different. In 99 of 100 other similar situations – 20 games for the first time in three years, first NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time in that same span, picked ninth in the Big 12 before finishing sixth, and returns its starting backcourt and a promising young big man next year (no, not Dean Wade – K-State radio color analyst Stan Weber said as much on Friday during a segment on Sports Radio 810 WHB in Kansas City when he said the other players basically decided to stop waiting on him to figure things out) – this season would be reason for at least cautious optimism going forward.

But those other 99 situations don’t have the inexplicable caveat that a sizable portion of a fan base has simply washed its hands of a coach and wants its administration to do the same. They’re tired of drinking 3.2% Weber beer and barely getting a winning buzz. They want to get winning hammered, even if they don’t know where to buy it.

Regardless, an increasing number of fans want to go shopping, including some who gave it a legitimate go and have legitimate power in their actions.

For example, a season ticket of 30+ consecutive years keenly watched the past year and decided after Friday’s conclusion that they are finished until a change is made. Here’s the note they sent me on Twitter:

“If they keep this man after that effort, I believe I may have to save what amounts to $1000, once I make the full donation, pay for the tickets and parking, the gas and eating out.

“Hard to end over 30 years of loyalty, but the way we play has no semblance of heart, or recruited and developed skill. That got Altman, Asbury and Wooldridge out of here by the 5-year mark. I would think it would do so for a 60-year-old man. It’s probably going to take him resigning, because I don’t think an athletic department in flux, without a permanent choice for AD in place, to would probably pull the trigger.

“Does your voice resonate enough to help us small donors have any say in this? I sure wish the large donors, who effect any of these decisions anyway, knew how a bunch of us little guys feel. If a change is made, I’m sending my dollars right back in. No change, no reaching of 32 years on the streak!!”

It doesn’t sound like this fan is alone in thinking this way.

I don’t know if I have a voice that reaches the decision makers at K-State, and I don’t agree with how things have played out, but here’s hoping those KSU decision-making folks understand exactly how deep-rooted, and growing, their issue is.

More than a few K-State fans want their team to lose

A couple of recent polls illustrate a fan base nearly split between wanting its team to win in the postseason and wanting a new coach.

The “Bruce Weber sucks no matter what he does” narrative has been a thing in and around Kansas State for some time; all the way back to the coach’s very first day for some Wildcats basketball fans. 

How large that thing actually is has been unmeasured to this point, with the popular thought being that most of the rage boiled down to a vicious but vocal minority.

K-State’s best season since 2013-14 – at least 20 wins, a sixth-place finish in the Big 12 after getting picked ninth, and a return to the NCAA postseason (technically, considering it’s the “Last 4 In”) would seem to be the perfect time to prove that assertion. After all, the program seemed to show a trend upward the past three years, if only a very slight one, moving from 15 to 17 to at least 20 wins.

But hey, progress is progress … until it isn’t, apparently, as a couple of recent Twitter polls showed a pretty serious split among fans when asked to choose between their team winning and getting a new coach.

The first poll was conducted right after K-State knocked Baylor out of the Big 12 Tournament.

Interesting, right? I mean, four out of 10 K-State fans* are still hoping their coach gets canned after a big win that was needed in order to break a postseason drought.

*This statement, and this entire post, makes the assumption that it was K-State fans who voted in the polls. Is it 100-percent guaranteed that every vote had purple in its veins? No. Is it a pretty safe bet that nearly all of those votes were K-State fans? I feel pretty confident in saying yes, mostly because nobody outside of this fanbase cares enough about KSU’s troubles to try and sway a vote like this one.

Still the bigger shocker came via the second poll conducted Sunday afternoon, right after K-State’s name was called to participate in the NCAA Tournament play-in game against Wake Forest.

Just 60 percent of 463 votes said they were happy K-State made the postseason. That left 40 percent saying they either weren’t happy or were conflicted.

That’s no small minority. And, it doesn’t really matter how things got to this point, even if it’s sometimes illogical or unfair.* That nearly half of a fan base can’t or won’t put positive results ahead of wishing for a new head coach demands legitimate attention.

*Personally, I’ve found many of the arguments against Weber to be vague and dishonest — “He’s one of the worst coaches in the league” or “This team keeps getting worse under Weber.” This all despite results showing that Weber has either had success in the past or held his own. Take this year, for example, when he beats every other Big 12 coach outside of Bill Self and Steve Prohm with a team picked to finish ninth. He isn’t the best coach in the league, but he certainly appears to be on par with most of the other ones.

Twitter conversation the past few days also has asked whether Bruce Weber might be the beneficiary of a fluid athletic director situation. In short, one would have to believe so, right? A school president wouldn’t put a coaching hire on the shoulders of an interim director, or shouldn’t. Or, if that does happen, one would believe the interim tag would be lifted soon after.

That timeline bears watching, and in the mean time, it gives Weber, whose current contract runs through the 2018-19 season, enough time to go win a couple of games in the next week and complicate things even more.