MANHATTAN — When Kansas State opened its season with a No. 12 national ranking, a veteran team and sky-high expectations, Bruce Weber was disappointed that his Wildcats weren’t getting even more love.
A week into the Big 12 schedule, with the Wildcats in last place at 0-2, a national spotlight was the last thing he wanted.
But in a topsy-turvy season that has seen the Wildcats go from worst to first in the span of just four games, they’re now firmly back in Weber’s good graces. After knocking off TCU last Saturday, they left Bramlage Coliseum in a four-way tie for the Big 12 lead.
“We had to go through some adversity,” said Weber, whose Wildcats can further solidify their position at 6 p.m. Tuesday when they face No. 14-ranked Texas Tech at Bramlage. “We had to go through some tough times and figure it out. (The players) had to figure it out.”
With other co-leaders Kansas and Iowa State squaring off Monday night, it means either K-State (14-4, 4-2 Big 12) or Texas Tech (15-3, 4-2) will emerge with a share of the top spot.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be rocking in there — sold out hopefully,” said senior forward Dean Wade, whose return three games ago from a foot injury has coincided with the Wildcats’ resurgence. “I hope the way we played (Saturday) encourages more students and people to come for Tuesday.
“But we can’t rely on that for our energy. We have to bring our own energy.”
Texas Tech was the last team to beat K-State, winning 63-57 on Jan. 5 in Lubbock, Texas. The Wildcats trailed by 15 at halftime in that game — the last of six without Wade — but got back within a point in the second period before faltering down the stretch.
The Red Raiders, after a 4-0 league start, have dropped two straight, falling 73-62 at Baylor on Saturday. But Weber is looking for a rock fight between two of the nation’s top defensive teams.
“Last year, they just came in here and out-toughed us,” Weber said of a 66-47 Tech romp in Bramlage where the Red Raiders blew it open with a big second half. “They win because they’re tough and they grind it out, they’re gutsy.
“We’ve got to be ready toughness-wise. If they want a pretty game, it’s not happening, especially to win it, so we have to come with that toughness to beat them.”
Tech leads the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 34.9 percent, and ranks second in scoring defense, allowing 55.8 points a game. But K-State is second in the conference in scoring defense at 59.2, holding 11 opponents below 60.
Wade, the Big 12 preseason player of the year, has provided a big lift since returning to the Wildcat lineup. In the last two games he has averaged 18 points, scoring 20 at Oklahoma and 16 against TCU in a pair of wire-to-wire K-State victories.
Against TCU, the Wildcats also got a needed scoring boost from junior Xavier Sneed with a season-high 18 points after he averaged just 6.6 on 27.8 percent shooting through the first five league games.
“Xavier, even though he hasn’t scored, he’s led us in rebounding when Dean went out, he’s the leader on the play-hard chart, he defended (Iowa State star Marial) Shayok,” Weber said. “He’s done all these other things that make a difference. It’s good for him, because he’s done all the other stuff that has helped us win without getting the publicity.”
Sneed, who brought his scoring average back to double figures at 10.4, remains second on the team in rebounding at 5.5 per game. But he was more interested in the number 14 in K-State’s win column.
“Just as long as we get the W, that’s what I’m here for, to help the team get the W,” said Sneed, who was 6 of 9 from the field with a 3-pointer and two lob dunks. “It helps out that I helped contribute on scoring for us (Saturday).”
Weber is just glad to see the team he had envisioned at the start of the season rounding into form.
“Two weeks ago, Kam (Stokes) said, ‘I want to win a Big 12 championship,’ but I was like, ‘I want to win a game,’ ” Weber said, recalling a conversation with his senior guard, who missed a home loss to Texas with the recurrence of an old foot injury. “I didn’t tell him that, but in my heart I was ...
“He said, ‘I’ve got to get back, Coach,’ and now they’ve put themselves in that position to compete for it, so we’ll see what happens.”