MANHATTAN, Kan. – The difference between Kansas State coach Bruce Weber and his predecessor, Frank Martin, was evident during the first few practices over the summer.
Weber was starting to implement the very basics of his motion offense, a markedly different system than what Martin had used so successfully, and it was absolute chaos — guys standing in the same spots, bumping into each other and throwing passes to nothing but air.
At first, Will Spradling braced himself for an earful after every miscue. After a while, he began to realize that the demeanor of his new coach was much more player-friendly.
"Last year it was, if we made a mistake, we were on the line. We were running," Spradling said. "This year it's, 'If you make a mistake, we're going to do it right. We're going to get it right. We're going to do it as many times as we need to get it right.'"
Make no mistake: Weber can be intense.
That became clear during a trip to Brazil over the summer, when the officials let a game get out of hand. But the former Illinois coach picks his moments to let loose, while Martin — who left this spring for South Carolina — often seemed to be searching for a reason to let loose.
Several players told The Associated Press during the offseason that Martin created a culture of fear within the program, one that was never fully recognized while he was leading the Wildcats to five consecutive 20-win seasons and four trips to the NCAA tournament.
"I feel like with Frank, if you weren't a top-seven guy ... if you had a bad practice or something happened, you knew you weren't going to play, guaranteed," sophomore guard Nino Williams said. "It was kind of a bad situation if you aren't a top-five guy or starter."
Weber represents for all of them a fresh start.
He wasn't a particularly popular hire among fans after getting fired by Illinois, but his everyman charm has slowly endeared himself to weary supporters across the state.
It helps that he was able to keep a deep, talented team intact.
Weber said his first order of business was to convince All-Big 12 guard Rodney McGruder to return for his senior year. Then he started meeting with every other guy from a team that went 22-11 last season, even getting the Brooklyn Nets' Deron Williams — whom Weber coached at Illinois — to call Angel Rodriguez and convince the sophomore guard to give Weber a chance.
"D-Will was just telling me that he was in the same position as me. He was frustrated when Bill Self left Illinois," Rodriguez said. "He just told me to not stress it, take it easy and just remember that he was in the same position, and he will never regret playing for Coach Weber."
Indeed, Weber was in a familiar situation when he took over the Illini. Self had just left to coach Kansas and left behind a roster loaded with talent.
After convincing Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head to stick around, Weber led Illinois to 26 wins his first season in Champaign. The Illini won the Big Ten title the following year, their first loss coming by a point to Ohio State in their regular-season finale, and then rolled to the national title game, where they suffered their only other loss, to North Carolina.
"Bill was truly missed there when he left, but we got them going," Weber said. "You want that challenge, and that's the exciting part of it."
Weber will never downplay the importance of getting the Wildcats to stick around for him.
The only significant contributor they'll have lost to graduation is Jamar Samuels, a talented but inconsistent post player who was held out of their NCAA tournament game by Syracuse after he was found to have received improper financial benefits.
McGruder is back after averaging nearly 16 points and better than five rebounds, and Spradling will be trying to build on his 9.3-point average that was third on the team. Seven-footer Jordan Henriquez has the potential to be one of the nation's best shot-swatting post defenders.
"He's seen us play in the past, and he wants us to continue to keep those same principles, even though the defensive style is completely different," Henriquez said of his new coach. "As hard as we play, as hard as we rebound, we want to keep that up also."
The Wildcats open the season Nov. 9 against Lamar, and have games against Gonzaga and Florida during the non-conference schedule. They get Oklahoma State to start the Big 12 slate in January, and Weber gets his first crack against Self and the Jayhawks on Jan. 22.
"It's an exciting time of year for us," Weber said. "Can we use this positive energy to keep our program going in the right direction? As a team you have got to feel good."