As he packed up his suitcase and prepared to board a flight home from Puerto Rico on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Kansas State coach Bruce Weber admits he was concerned about his team.
A stunning season-opening loss to Northern Colorado served as the first blow to Weber's confidence because he hadn't expected his team to lose that game at home even without top big man Thomas Gipson. Two narrow home wins over Oral Roberts and Long Beach State did little to ease Weber's fears, nor did losing in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off to Charlotte and getting dismantled in the consolation bracket by Georgetown.
"I was very worried," Weber said. "Our older guys we expected to be our foundation, Shane Southwell and Will Spradling, were really struggling. Gipson had missed a couple of those games, so I knew we'd be better with him. But we had so many areas to learn and grow and I wasn't sure if we'd be able to do it or not."
What Weber did next was something he had never done before and something he believes has contributed to his team's impressive transformation from November disappointment to mid-February NCAA tournament lock. When Kansas State arrived home from Puerto Rico, Weber demanded the Wildcats stop moping about their poor start and set a goal of going undefeated in December.
It started modestly with a 33-point rout of overmatched Central Arkansas. A three-point victory over previously undefeated Ole Miss on Dec. 5 was more significant. And by the time Kansas State upset Gonzaga in Wichita, clobbered Tulane in Brooklyn and walloped a pretty good George Washington team at home, the Wildcats had finished December with a 7-0 record and built momentum entering Big 12 play.
Kansas State (17-7, 7-4) has sustained that surge ever since, notching home wins over Kansas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas to emerge as one of the better teams in a league as tough as any in the nation. If the Wildcats can win at Baylor on Saturday, they'll likely reenter the AP Top 25 poll on Monday.
"When I gave them that goal of going undefeated in December, it seemed like a lot to ask but each game they got a little closer and they really started to buy in," Weber said. "Now we're an established team, a good team. There are still some things we can do better, but we can compete with a lot of people in the country."
There are a handful of reason Kansas State has improved since its rocky start, none bigger than the emergence of Gipson. The 6-foot-7 junior has returned from the unspecified injury that limited him the first four games of the season and provided efficient back-to-the-basket scoring, solid rebounding and the vocal leadership Kansas State's quiet senior class was struggling to offer.
Equally critical for Kansas State has been the emergence of freshman Marcus Foster as the team's top perimeter scoring threat.
An under-the-radar prospect who grew up in a small town more than 100 miles outside Dallas and didn't receive much playing time for his star-studded Dallas-based AAU team, Foster committed to Kansas State without visiting another school. He shed some weight during his senior year of high school and arrived in Manhattan more ready to make an impact than even Weber expected.
"We knew we needed him to score, but I didn't know he'd get 34 against Texas or 20 against Kansas," Weber said. "In summer workouts, it was like, man, he's pretty good. Then we got into practice, man, he's pretty good. Then we scrimmaged somebody, and he was the leading scorer. Then it was, well, how's he going to be in a game? And how is he going to be in a big game? He's very focused, he's a really good kid and he's getting better and better."
With Foster averaging 15 points per game and shooting nearly 40 percent from behind the arc, it has alleviated some of the pressure Spradling and Southwell felt early in the season to emerge as go-to scorers.
The two career complementary players were forcing shots and trying to do too much in November because they felt a responsibility to try to fill the void left by the graduation of leading scorer Rodney McGruder and the transfer of starting point guard Angel Rodriguez. Now Spradling has settled into his role as a pass-first point guard who can also knock down an open jump shot or finish at the rim when needed. Southwell still is more sporadic than Weber would like, but he has scored in spurts from the perimeter.
"Southwell and Spradling had put so much pressure on themselves early and they were doing too much, making mistakes and forcing shots," Weber said. "Will has really come into his own. Shane has had some nice moments, but we need him to be a little more consistent if we're going to keep improving."
When Kansas State hired Weber in March 2012 a few weeks after he was fired at Illinois, one of the reasons he was an attractive candidate for the Wildcats was because he had enjoyed success following in the footsteps of a beloved coach in Champaign. He led Illinois to the national title game in 2005 two years after Bill Self had left for Kansas.
Weber got off to an excellent start in his debut season replacing popular Frank Martin at Kansas State, leading last year's team to 27 victories and a share of the Big 12 title. With a strong incoming recruiting class and four of the team's five leading scorers set to return, Weber felt good about Kansas State's chances of contending again last spring until the landscape began to change around him.
First Rodriguez unexpectedly transferred to Miami, leaving Weber without a proven point guard. Then the rest of the league kept improving as Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash returned to Oklahoma State, Kansas signed Andrew Wiggins and Iowa State added standout transfer Deandre Kane.
Despite all that, however, Weber has Kansas State right in the mix. If the Wildcats can improve their performance on the road, they'll have a chance to finish in the top three in the league again and earn another high seed in the NCAA tournament, goals that seemed all but unattainable when Weber was heading home from Puerto Rico in November.
"You're never sure how good you're going to be at the beginning of a season and we definitely didn't have the start we wanted," Weber said. "But we feel good about where we are right now and about the future of Kansas State basketball."