K-State football: Having to adjust expectations

If you were looking for some kind of restorative “make me feel better” performance from the Kansas State Wildcats against Baylor, how do you feel after?

Wins are good, obviously, but I don’t know that I feel that much better — not after a second-half performance delivered with the intensity of a stale Werther’s Original.

There were too many dropped passes by wide receivers again.* And, I admit I was surprised at how key defensive back Cre Moore apparently is to the defense. His absence was noticeable after he was ejected for targeting — especially on the long, gashing pass plays through the middle of the Wildcats defense.

*Holy self-confidence issues, Batman. There have been many past individual receiving talents much better than anyone on this roster, but this group as a whole was supposed to be, perhaps, one of the best ever assembled. Maybe the group still can be by season’s end, but Byron Pringle and crew have to figure out how to, simply, catch the damn ball.

Overall, this team is 3-1, 1-0, which beats anything less. Still, however, I’m struggling with the first four games’ evidence, dropped passes included, and reconciling that it is the base of my growing dread that I badly, optimistically misjudged what the 2017 Wildcats will accomplish.

If anything else, I don’t want to be wrong because, well, being wrong sucks. But, in this case, it also means a letdown. That’s not fun either. I want to believe this team will finish 10-2 and make it to the Big 12 Championship. I want to believe that making such a run — especially now — would mean an outside shot at a national semifinal.

Here’s the evidence I think I’m seeing that will keep that from happening.

Offensive plays. On the surface, this seems like an easy potshot at Dana Dimel, but it isn’t…not totally anyways. He’s trying, or appears to be. He continues to call passes despite receivers’ catching problems. He has dialed down the obvious “give it to Winston inside the 20” stuff from last year. But, there have been head-scratching moments when Dimel seems to go right despite the left working just fine (throwing against Vanderbilt in the second half when the run was effective).

And there is the curious lack of regular use of Justin Silmon. Alex Barnes is a stud, but Silmon has looked pretty darn good in his own right when he gets touches. There should be plenty of room for both of them, especially in an offense that values the run as much as K-State’s does.

Jesse Ertz has to forget about tomorrow. The heart of Bill Snyder’s offense drums to the beat of the quarterback’s bravado. Ertz is a capable leader, he understands the offense, and he’s better every game in terms of reading his running lanes. But, reading open lanes and fully exploiting them are different things. In fact, the past two games it seems when Ertz runs, he’s anxious to get on the ground once he gets into the open. Down the road, when one cut or one broken tackle could mean a first down or score? Hitting the ground after gaining eight yards won’t cut it – not for a team trying to fight its way into a Championship picture.

(By the way, did you happen to notice the difference in spark level with Alex Delton behind center at the end of the Baylor game? If you say no, you’re either lying or didn’t see it.)

The Do-it-all-defense isn’t all that deepK-State leads the Big 12 in total defense, scoring defense, and pass defense, but the way it was gashed in the middle by Baylor for big plays after Moore left makes me wonder if the secondary can withstand any missing pieces over the next eight weeks. It will probably show well against Texas. After that, TCU and especially Oklahoma are going to be a challenge.

That said, is it impossible for all starters to be available all year? Of course not. But, it’s a precarious spot.

The Commodores clue. I’m not usually a fan of basing one team’s potential on how an opponent fares, but I think there’s some value in it here. Vanderbilt is in that same Top 25’ish soup K-State is in. So, considering how evenly the two teams played each other, I’ve paid attention to Vanderbilt as it took on other ranked foes. In watching No. 1 Alabama destroy the Commodores, 59-0, and No. 21 Florida following up with a 38-24 win, it left me really unimpressed with K-State’s ability to score just seven points against Vandy.

If I believe K-State is Big 12 Championship quality after those results, then it means Vanderbilt is good enough to win the Big 12. I don’t believe that. So, the other side is K-State isn’t good enough to win the Big 12. That, unfortunately, feels more correct.

Teamrankings.com currently projects K-State to finish 7-5. I don’t think it’s that dire, but I’m thinking I should prepare myself for eight or nine wins as the ceiling for this team, as opposed to the 10 or 11 I thought was on the table at the beginning of the season.

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K-State football: We have a duty to keep focus on the field

If you’ve been to Bill Snyder Family Stadium during pregame in the past nearly three decades, you’ve heard it (minus the Ron Prince years, of course) …

Right now! Hey! It’s your tomorrow!”

More than at any other time, this Kansas State Wildcats football season feels that way.

An experienced, talented quarterback, a stout defense, overall depth, good special teams, and a stack of skill position players with speed coming out of their wherever. All of that was rewarded with a preseason Top 20 ranking (which has proven to be a terrific place to start for teams willing to play their way into the national picture by season’s end).

And Bill Snyder is leading it all after waging a war on his cancer during the offseason.

I see this, and I’m inspired and appreciative.

On Saturday, I caught myself watching a game* that doesn’t matter in any other year with a different sense of enjoyment. Big plays and a high score helped, I’m sure, but I noticed me appreciating how much of a treat it is to watch a Kansas State team coached by Bill Snyder.

*ESPN3 … what an overwhelming failure. It wasn’t first time I’ve watched a game via the platform, and it won’t be the last because sometimes it is the only option. But, as I tweeted Saturday, massive issues like these did nothing to ease my distrust in streamable broadcasting. I love the long-term upside, but while there also are broadcast issues at times with traditional channels, that route is far more reliable at this point.

But, while watching the Wildcats roll, I also saw K-State’s transcendent, windbreaker-wearing icon, a legend built out of limestone, looking as if a stiff Kansas wind gust could knock him over.

I saw him, and I worry. I don’t want to worry, but I do. I say this as the person who wondered why the national media couldn’t just let Bill Snyder be Bill back in April. I worry because we’re now nearing five months since that column, and Snyder looks almost exactly like he did at that point. And, I don’t know why. And, I don’t know if anyone else knows why. And, it’s unsettling even if I don’t want it to be. And, the season is now underway. And, and, and …

*Breathe* …

His postgame analysis was sharp. So, too, was his resolve to correct his team’s mistakes before next week. All of it felt like football Saturdays in Manhattan are supposed to feel.

That normalcy is a credit to Snyder (and everyone on his staff stepping up where needed) in keeping focus on the field. That effort is why they deserve for us to do the same for now. (Yes, I know how that sounds considering I’ve just written a column about it.)

Regardless, I will. I will keep my mind on the team. I’ll keep watching as it battles for wins, for a Big 12 championship, and for its coach.

(Think what you just read should be shared? I’d love for you to share with other K-Staters! Please help spread the word on Facebook and Twitter!) 

K-State sports coverage: just hoping for the best

What a whirlwind the past few weeks have been for the Kansas State Wildcats media scene – enough to make me wonder whatever happened to that whole “the media shouldn’t be the story” thing … except, now there are a few things that legitimately deserve attention.

– In Kansas City, Kansas State athletics had to find a new home for this season and beyond after being unceremoniously dumped by Union Broadcasting and 810 WHB.

– So, over to 610 KCSP, where new ads boast you’ll be able to hear games on a much clearer signal.

– That, of course, only applies when 610 actually broadcasts games on that frequency instead of stuffing K-State somewhere else in the Entercom closet during Royals games.

– KSU broadcasts aside, it will be interesting to hear the difference in tone toward K-State by hosts who have, for years, been unabashed in their bias for KU.

– I really don’t think it will be a problem to be honest. Not after hearing Fescoe in the Morning come to the mock outraged defense of Royals pitcher Danny Duffy.

– Bob Fescoe chastised a media person’s joke attempt about Duffy’s DUI because, in part, a media person should be trying to “curry favor” to the player and to an organization.

– By the way, officially, to curry favor is to attempt to gain or advance through fawning and flattery.

– Hey, if you’re K-State, you’ve got to like a station that lives to please its masters.

– Meanwhile, the purple internets were buzzing late this week as Gopowercat.com – a Rivals.com member site since its inception – announced, as it was leaving, that it would become part of the 247/CBS family.

– A lot of people who paid for an annual subscription to GPC/Rivals, well, they’re out that cash, according to more than a few posters. A lot of those same folks were also on the short end of their investment when publisher Tim Fitzgerald announced his company was discontinuing its printed magazine earlier this year and refunds weren’t given there, either.

– Rivals wasted no time in finding a K-State replacement for GPC – hiring former Kansas City Star/Wichita Eagle K-State reporter Jeff Martin to run the purple ship.

– It sets up for an interesting competition this year in the press box, which means there’s at least something fun to watch there this week while the Wildcats dominate Week 1 on the field.

K-State’s Gene Taylor needs to lead Aggieville out of Averageville

His predecessor raised buildings and got a little lucky in winning while doing so, but new K-State Director of Athletics Gene Taylor needs to figure out how to get KSU to consistently and legitimately compete.

New Kansas State Director of Athletics Gene Taylor (right) is welcomed by K-State President Richard Myers.

It was only four years ago that Kansas State University planted its flag atop the Big 12 mountain. “Titletown USA is right here in Manhattan, Kansas, isn’t it?” John Currie rhetorically asked during a celebration in March 2013.

Since then, however, K-State has had more new athletic directors than Big 12 championships in football, men’s basketball, and baseball – the three sports that formed the foundation of Currie’s statement. The three winning percentages in that time: .615 (football); .549 (men’s basketball); .473 (baseball).

Sort of quietly — outside of the constant roar surrounding Bruce Weber anyways — Aggieville has rebranded from Titletown to Averageville.

Despite that, the football machine, for now, is untouchable of course and should be until Bill Snyder is no longer the head coach. That said, Taylor was asked on a Kansas City-area sports radio show whether Snyder worked for him, or he worked for Snyder. To paraphrase, Taylor’s response was that the two would work “together.”

What will be interesting to watch unfold is what “together” means for both parties. With Currie, Snyder publicly was as rigid as he was civil — whether in his long-standing disdain for made-for-TV schedules (as Currie pushed for greater fan experiences) or in his weird public campaign for Sean Snyder to become the next K-State head coach.*

*I’ve not felt this was a 100-percent honest campaign from Snyder – not when coaches like Jim Leavitt randomly have contract clauses paving for an easy return to K-State. I mean, life is sometimes stranger than fiction but to think a calculated someone like Leavitt put a clause like that in just because he has feelings for KSU? You can buy it and I won’t blame you, but I’m going to pass.

And while this season appears to have some national/Top 25 potential, it doesn’t mask the fact that K-State has appeared in the national rankings in only one of the past four seasons. Taylor has some time to work together with Snyder, make sure he listens to the legend, and get his plan in place. Nowhere in there should it be about maintaining the status quo because the past several years haven’t actually been all that amazing.

Meanwhile, over in Bramlage Coliseum, Taylor has a much more immediate concern. In the same sports radio interview, Taylor avoided committing for or against an extension for Bruce Weber. He’s wise in doing so. While fans and some sites are hot on firing Weber, Taylor appeared to show he will not be pressured into quick decisions without fully surveying the landscape. That landscape includes K-State President Richard Myers, who alluded to an extension with Weber in his opening comments welcoming Taylor.

Barring an unforeseen miracle, KSU will not win a Big 12 Championship in the next two years or longer, and every year that streak extends will be an increasingly uncomfortable feeling not just for whomever the coach is, but their boss as well. K-State fans have made it clear they do not appreciate basketball mediocrity. There’s no reason to believe that attitude will change, and Taylor needs to answer that call if he wants to successfully cultivate and maintain a good relationship with that sector of the fanbase.

And finally, in the shadows is the K-State baseball program, which has taken perhaps the biggest fall among the three programs. Since winning the Big 12 in 2013, Brad Hill’s program has meandered along a downhill path; its best conference winning percentage the past four seasons is .417 (2015). Its overall record is 99-110 in that time.

This year, an early-season victory against Top 25 South Carolina gave great reason for hope, but not much came of it before the Bat Cats took two out of three against No. 25 West Virginia this past weekend.

Hill did wonders in rebuilding what Mike Clark handed him, but history has shown a rebuild, a peak, and a regression. It is on Taylor, probably sooner than later, to determine if Hill is the one to rebuild things a second time.

The great news is Taylor can focus on these things and be the people person he’s been billed as. And, he can do so with an amenities ace in his sleeve. Like never before, K-State has the facilities to compete … right now. Pay attention to them throughout the “Day in the Life” video. K-State has never looked better.

It all means it boils down to one thing for Taylor: He doesn’t have many, if any, excuses at this point. He has new, shiny walls. He needs to develop his department’s culture so that it brings new banners to hang on them.

 

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.

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.

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.