MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) They arrived at Kansas State during a reboot of the program, taking the place of a bunch of transfers and others who had left coach Bruce Weber and his program teetering on unstable footing.
Barry Brown, Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes have done more than just provide a solid foundation.
After essentially starting since their freshman year, the trio helped the Wildcats return to the NCAA Tournament last season, knocking off Wake Forest in an opening-round game. And now, they are back for their junior seasons as the unquestioned leaders of a team with higher aspirations.
"They are going to have to play like seniors, with consistency," Weber said. "Our little quote for the summer was, `If you never wake up with something to prove, you will never improve.' We have talked about that all summer, and to me there is no doubt they have improved. Now we have to show it."
The Wildcats certainly have pieces to replace from last year's 21-14 finish.
Wesley Iwundu grew from a quiet role player into an NBA draft pick. D.J. Johnson provided size and scoring in the paint. Carlbe Ervin II was a solid perimeter defender. Austin Budke was the gritty, overachieving forward. And when Isaiah Maurice was kicked out of the program for violating team rules, it left a gaping hole inside that the Wildcats must patch up with transfers and freshmen.
But when you combine the Wildcats' junior trio with Xavier Sneed, who played meaningful minutes as a freshman, and redshirts Cartier Diarra and forward James Love III, there is plenty of experience.
There are also plenty of newcomers to fill in the roster.
Six-eight forward Mawdo Sallah is a graduate transfer from Mt. St. Mary's, and Makol Mawien is a 6-9 forward from New Mexico Junior College. They'll be joined by incoming prospects Nigel Shadd and Levi Stockard to give the Wildcats plenty of big bodies in the paint.
The Wildcats will also try to mix junior college transfer Amaad Wainright, a 6-4 guard, and top-100 prospect Mike McGuirl into the mix to give the veterans on the perimeter a breather.
"This year's team is going to be competitive," Brown said. "We have a lot of flexible guys that can play multiple positions. We're going to be athletic, long, shoot the 3 at a higher efficiency and get to the basket. I feel that we are going to improve in every statistic."
Including wins, the only one that ultimately matters.
As the Wildcats prepare for the season, here are some of the key story lines:
The Wildcats played poorly in their NCAA Tournament loss to Cincinnati, but the experience was still beneficial. They had missed out on playing in it back-to-back years.
"It was real motivational," said Stokes, who led the Wildcats in assists last year. "We know we can get there and we just have to get these new guys on board so we can get back to that point."
Weber agreed to a two-year extension in August that could keep him with the Wildcats through the 2020-21 season. It was the first major personnel move by new Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor, and an important vote of confidence for a coach who had been on the hot seat.
Kansas State opens Nov. 10 against American, and has high-profile non-conference games against Arizona State, Vanderbilt, Washington State and Georgia. Then comes the double-round robin Big 12 schedule, which includes a three-game stretch against Kansas, West Virginia and Texas.
Brown and Stokes get a lot of attention for being flashy perimeter scorers, but it may be the 6-8 Wade who needs to take the biggest step this season. He averaged 9.3 points and 4.5 rebounds last season, but there are some who think he could be a regular double-double guy.
"I see someone who was not aggressive enough, offensively and defensively, especially in rebounding," he acknowledged, "but I also see a ton of room to grow. Hopefully this offseason I have grown enough to expand my game."
X MARKS THE SPOT
Sneed arrived at Kansas State with more prep credentials than anyone, and there were times that he showed his promise. But after pouring in 17 points in his college debut, he struggled to have consistent success, failing to reach double figures in his final 10 games.
"This year showing my all-around game, being able to shoot, attack the hole and play defense is a big key for me," he said.
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