KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas State coach Bruce Weber can laugh about it now.

But it wasn’t all that long ago that Dean Wade, the Big 12 preseason player of the year, looked lost and lonely on a Big 12 basketball court.

“Going back three years ago, Dean had (Iowa State’s) Georges Niang in his nightmares, (Kansas’) Perry Ellis in his nightmares,” Weber said of Wade, then a wide-eyed freshman from tiny St. John. “We’d always say snot would be coming out of his nose and he’d just get white in the face and he just wanted out — ‘Please take me out.’

“But that’s just freshmen. We had to throw him into the fire and we needed him.”

Sure enough, Wade has been a starter since Day 1, though in his first two seasons he averaged just under 10 points and about five rebounds per game. Then last year, he came into his own, raising his scoring to 16.2 points and rebounding average to 6.2.

Even Wade, now a strapping 6-foot-10, 228-pound senior, marvels at the transformation. Nobody has to tell him anymore how good he is.

“I think it’s just a combination of the coaching staff and my teammates telling me to keep going, and really just myself realizing that I’m a better basketball player than I originally thought,” he said. “I think that’s the main thing that happened, and since then I’ve had the basketball player’s mentality that I’m the best player out there.”

The Big 12 coaches concurred, naming him to the All-Big 12 first team last year, then voting him preseason player of the year. It doesn’t hurt that K-State, with all five starters back from a 25-12 team, is ranked preseason No. 12 nationally and second behind Kansas in the Big 12.

“He’s one of the premier players in our league (and) he’s one of the premier players in the country,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Weber is a bit miffed that Wade did not receive a single vote in the preseason All-America team that was released recently.

“Somebody is not watching or paying attention,” Weber said. “But I think a little bit of it is he didn’t get to be a part of that (NCAA Tournament) run, so people nationally didn’t get to see him.

“It bothered me a little bit, (but) I’m sure it doesn’t bother Dean at all because I don’t think he pays attention to that.”

Indeed, Wade missed a golden opportunity to raise his national profile when a stress fracture in his foot kept him sidelined during most of K-State’s magical NCAA run to the Elite Eight.

“It felt like I played all the hard parts of the season and then got to the fun part and I had to sit in time out,” Wade said.

But now he’s fully healed, and every bit as self-assured.

“It just gives me confidence that people think of me just as highly as I think of myself,” Wade said of the player-of-the-year designation. “It’s an awesome award, but it’s the preseason.

“People expect a lot from me this season and I expect a lot from myself, so I’ve got to carry it through the season.”

If there’s one area where Wade can raise his game, Weber said, it’s rebounding.

“Just being a little more aggressive and add two (rebounds per game),” Weber said. “Probably if he wouldn’t have gotten hurt and he averaged eight rebounds a game, he wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be asking me questions.”

Wade agreed that rebounding is a priority, though he refused to set a specific goal for his senior year.

“Just a few more,” he said. “Really, the only thing is you’ve got to have the drive to go get it.

“There’s times last year where I didn’t really have the drive to go get it — go outside my rebounding zone to go get loose balls and stuff like that. So I think this year I’m going to keep driven to go out of my zone and really chase rebounds.”

If he does, he also could end up chasing a NBA career.

“It’s kind of different, coming from St. John, a small town, and thinking that I have an opportunity to play in the NBA,” Wade said. “That would be great.

“Nothing’s promised. I’ve still got to come out and work every day and do what I can.”