Rebuilding during a pandemic
As if rebuilding a roster loaded with underclassmen wasn't difficult enough, try doing it in the middle of a global pandemic.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber has, and it's not a lot of fun.
"Every day is a new challenge," said Weber, who begins his ninth season at K-State when the Wildcats tip off against Drake at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Bramlage Coliseum. "My wife just laughs: by 8:30, what call I'm getting from either the trainer or a coach or somebody — a parent something, what's going on."
Much has gone on since K-State's 2019-20 season abruptly ended on March 12, a day after their first-round victory over TCU in the Big 12 Tournament. Mainly, Weber has completely overhauled a roster that lost the top three scorers and rebounders from an 11-21 team that finished last in the conference at 3-15.
Only four players — three of them now sophomores — return from that team, with senior guard Mike McGuirl the lone upperclassman. Rudi Williams, a spring signee from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, is the only scholarship junior.
Weber did sign eight new players, including five last fall that made up his highest-rated recruiting class at K-State and arguably ranks among the most touted in school history. But with the coronavirus pandemic severely limiting contact with players, not to mention restricting practices, Weber is as curious as anyone to see how it all shakes out.
"It's going to be interesting, to say the least," he said. "We'll know more about 3 o'clock next Wednesday afternoon, what we just went through and how we're going to be as a team. I think it's going to be a long process."
If the season does get underway on schedule Wednesday — the NCAA already has postponed the start once to Nov. 25 — there is much to sort out for the Wildcats. Fortunately for Weber, all four returning players saw significant playing time a year ago and each had at least nine starts.
But there's a good chance that two or three starters will be newcomers. At the top of that list are freshman point guard Nijel Pack and 6-foot-10 sophomore Kaosi Ezeagu, a semester transfer from UTEP.
Of the holdovers, McGuirl, sophomore guard DaJuan Gordon and sophomore forwards Montavious Murphy and Antonio Gordon all figure into the mix. So do 7-foot center Davion Bradford and athletic wing Selton Miguel, both freshmen, as well as point guard Williams.
"Mike McGuirl, Kaosi, DaJuan and Nijel have been as consistent as anybody," Weber said. "But then, the other guys like Rudi, it's all new to him. He's learning.
"Davion (Bradford) has been a nice surprise, and the other guys are just slowly but surely getting better. I think Monty (Murphy) and Antonio are starting to take some steps to give you the consistency that you hope for from the experienced guys."
McGuirl, who started 20 games a year ago, is the top returning scorer at 6.9 points a game, while DaJuan Gordon (11 starts) averaged 6.3. Murphy (16 starts) and Antonio Gordon (nine starts) each averaged 3.7 rebounds.
McGuirl, easily the team leader with 75 career appearances, also has tried to assume a greater leadership role off the court.
"My mindset is I've been in college for three years, so I've been able to see the good and the bad of college basketball, in all honesty," he said. "So I'm trying to take what I know from the good and really spread it to the rest of the team.
"I've got the greatest teammates I could ask for. They're really good people, they work hard, they all listen to the coaches — they're all coachable — so, I'm blessed to have teammates like this, and I just try to help them, show them by example, but they're learning fast."
So far, so good, according to Weber.
"He has wanted to be the guy," Weber said of McGuirl. "Obviously he is our only senior (and) he's got the most experience, and had some really nice moments in his career here.
"But now, can you be the guy and can you be consistent? That's what we've talked about. I think he's showed that so far in practice."
Weber has yet to call his team's work ethic into question.
"Not just Mike and DaJuan, but other guys — Kaosi — have really put time in the gym," he said. "One, they don't have anything else to do, but they want to have success, and that has definitely helped.
"Then the other part of leadership is gaining respect and trust of the teammates and being there to help them. Not just be a friend, (but) holding people accountable and then making sure stay we're staying on task with our mission.
On the court, McGuirl and DaJuan Gordon both have improved their perimeter shooting, and Pack may well be the most accurate 3-point threat. The Wildcats shot just 31.3% from outside the arc last year.
DaJuan Gordon, whose 44.3 field goal percentage was the best among the returning players, expects to pick up some of the scoring slack left from last year's top point-producers — Xavier Sneed (14.2 ppg), Cartier Diarra (13.3) and Makol Mawien (7.4). Not that he's obsessed with it.
"I think I'll be able to be looked at to score more," he said. "But my main focus isn't just on scoring.
"I want everybody to score. I want to score. I just want to win. If I only score two points and we win, so be it."
Gordon and Miguel both are strong and athletic enough to get to the basket.
One area where the Wildcats should be better offensively is in the post. Weber said that through early practices, Ezeagu was shooting 68% from the floor and Bradford 60%.
"The big thing is we feel we’ve got to find ways to score," Weber said. "One, I believe we can get in transition and push the basketball — hopefully versatile multitask guys that can do a lot of things with our guards.
"But at the same time, I think we really feel much more comfortable throwing the ball in the post. (Ezeagu and Bradford) can score the ball. We've really made an emphasis of getting them the ball inside, so a little different than we've been for a while, because we really have a post presence with those guys. If we can get it to them deep, they're going to be tough to stop."
One concern heading into the Little Apple Classic, which after Drake on Wednesday has the Wildcats playing Colorado on Friday night, is how physically prepared the team is. Thanks to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing practices with fewer than 10 available players have been the rule rather than the exception.
"We will have to do a good job of rotating guys," Weber said. "We have to build up some endurance as we go (and) keep them fresh as possible.
"But you still want to win. That is still the goal. You don’t have that exhibition game to go through. But again, I know the other teams are going through the same thing."
The Big 12 requires six available scholarship players for a game. After a recent practice, Williams joked that the Wildcats resembled an AAU travel team.
"But honestly, right now I feel like everybody just wants to play," Williams said. "So if we've got to play with six guys, seven guys or eight guys, I think everybody would just be happy to play because we've been waiting so long.
"Coach (Weber) is always talking about 'winning the wait.' We've been doing a good job with the wait, so no matter how it happens, I feel like we're just happy to play."