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May 15, 2012
An Opportunity and a Challenge
Weber at K-State

by John Gasaway


When Frank Martin announced on March 27 that he was leaving Kansas State to take the job at South Carolina, one thing was immediately apparent. Some lucky coach was going to be handed a very good situation in Manhattan, Kansas. After all, Martin was leaving behind a veteran roster, one that reached the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament before bowing out to top seed Syracuse.

It turns out the lucky coach is none other than Bruce Weber. After nine seasons at Illinois, Weber was fired because his program's on-court performance had registered a long, slow decline since the Illini made an appearance in the 2005 national championship game.

Major-conference head coaches who are fired don't usually turn around and land another major-conference gig with a team that's a perennial NCAA tournament participant. But Weber has a sterling reputation in the profession as not only a good X's and O's coach, but also as a rock-solid citizen and straight shooter. In all of those qualities he figures to be a good "fit" in Manhattan, Kansas. If any coach deserves a golden opportunity like this after a 6-12 season in-conference, it could be Weber. And the fact that no K-State players have (as of yet) elected to transfer can itself be seen as a vote of confidence in the new coach.

So put me down as agreeing wholeheartedly with my colleague Jason King: "Weber couldn't have walked into a better situation." Just look at the numbers. The Wildcats return fully 87 percent of their possession-minutes from last season. Jamar Samuels is the only player not coming back from last year's 22-11 team.

In Jason's piece, Weber said he'd given his players the following message: "You won [under Martin] because of rebounding, toughness and defense. Don't lose that." As an aside Weber then voiced an intention to introduce "a little more offensive [structure]." "Offensive structure" in this case means Weber's motion offense.

When the motion offense is clicking it's a thing of beauty (think Illinois in 2005 with Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head), and Weber likes to get things clicking with helpful suggestions from the sidelines. Indeed, anyone who thinks there will be less yelling under Weber than there was under the notoriously vocal Martin doesn't know the new K-State coach very well. With Weber, however, the yelling is more often tactical than disciplinary. I've sat along press row within a few feet of Weber during a game, and what one hears most often when his team has the ball is "MOVE!" and "SCREEN AND RE-SCREEN!"

All the movement and screening should be good news for Rodney McGruder. If there's such a thing as a "breakout senior," my money's on McGruder to earn that label in 2012-13. He didn't get a lot of attention last year, but what the 6-4 wing did do was make his shots, not only from the field (he drained half his twos and 39 percent of his threes) but also from the line, where he was an 80 percent shooter.

McGruder gives Weber a nice foundation to build around on offense, and seven-footers Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz certainly give the new coach all the size he could ask for. Thomas Gipson is listed at a mere 6-7, but he rebounds at both ends of the floor with a tenacity that any coach can love. Will Spradling, Angel Rodriguez, and Martavious Irving give Weber plenty of experience in the backcourt. And newcomer Michael Orris, a 6-2 freshman-to-be from Chicago, characterizes himself as "a pass-first, old-school point guard." There should be plenty of talent for Weber to work with in his first year in Manhattan.

That being said, this is going to be a fascinating collision to watch in terms of style. The things that Kansas State was really good at last season -- grabbing offensive rebounds and forcing opponents to commit turnovers -- are precisely the things that, historically speaking, Weber does not like his teams to do. (So Weber's sound bite, quoted above, requires a slight revision. He should have told his new team, "You won because of offensive rebounding, toughness and defense.")

Maybe Weber can pull a Frank Haith. In his first season at Missouri last year, Haith met his new team half-way stylistically, playing a tempo that was markedly faster than what he'd been comfortable with at Miami, but also introducing more dribble-penetration while doing away with the pressing style of defense that Mike Anderson had featured in Columbia. This blend of old and new at Missouri worked better that anyone had expected -- at least until the Tigers ran across Norfolk State.

One task sure to appear on Weber's agenda will be improving K-State's field-goal defense and defensive rebounding. While the Wildcats' overall defense last year was excellent, that success was achieved in large part because Big 12 opponents turned the ball over on 24 percent of their possessions. On possessions where the opponent did not give the ball away -- what I call an "effective possession" -- the Wildcats allowed 1.28 points per trip in conference play. That number was right at the league average, meaning an average number of opponent turnovers would have made this defense look a lot different. Weber is likely well aware of these numbers, and will tweak accordingly. He's fortunate to be tweaking with a group of veterans.

This marks the second consecutive time that a new coach at Kansas State has been given an unusually good -- if not outstanding -- chance at success in his first season. When Martin was in his first season at the helm of the Wildcats in 2007-08, he had a player by the name of Michael Beasley who made the coach's X's and O's a good deal more effective on offense. Weber doesn't have a Beasley, but he does have a flock of proven performers returning from a team that went 10-8 in the Big 12. With a little bit of stylistic flexibility from both the coach and his players, this team can most certainly better that mark in 2013. Assuming the coach and his players are on the same page, Kansas State has all the ingredients for a run to the Sweet 16.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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