MANHATTAN, Kan. – Just about everyone is back this season for Kansas State — except the coach.
Frank Martin is gone to South Carolina, and former Illinois coach Bruce Weber has taken over. Returning players will be the key as Weber tries to prove that a couple of lean years in Champaign were an aberration.
He's off to a good start so far, having successfully "re-recruited" 12 lettermen, including six who started 10 games or more for the Wildcats in 2011.
Seniors Rodney McGruder, Jordan Henriquez and Martavious Irving all have considerable experience, and other players have logged meaningful minutes. McGruder led the team in scoring and 10 other categories last season; he and Henriquez were named to the Big 12's all-defensive team.
"You feel good that you're not kind of starting over," Weber said. "Even though it's a new coach and new system and new staff, you've got a group that's been together."
Retaining that group was a crucial first step for Weber, and the players say they are buying into Weber's way.
McGruder pointed out that his new coach has developed players who went on to play professionally. McGruder hopes to be the next name on that list.
Angel Rodriguez got a phone call from former Illinois guard and NBA star Deron Williams, who was in a situation similar to Rodriguez's when Weber took over for Bill Self in 2004. Williams told Rodriguez he never regretted staying at Illinois and playing for Weber.
Players all liked what they heard about the coach, but his genuine demeanor and impressive resume were what sold them.
"His words were what I wanted to hear, but that could come from anybody," Rodriguez said. "I guess I just looked at his basketball career as a coach, and I talked to my people, and I felt like it was the right decision to stay here."
In addition to positive reviews and first impressions, Kansas State players found even more to like about their coach after seeing him in action during the team's summer tournament in Brazil.
Many consider Weber exceedingly mild-mannered in comparison to fiery Martin. When one of the overseas matchups began to get out of hand, Weber showed that he might have a little more fire in him than people realize.
In a game against Tijuca Club that included an astounding 78 free throws, Weber got ejected during the fourth quarter for protesting a foul that went against his team. This surprised everyone, and it worked in Weber's favor.
"He came in with an identity of a passive coach," Henriquez said. "He proved to me right there that he's not as passive as he looks."
With confidence in their coach, and with the bond between Weber, the staff and the players growing daily, the next issue on the docket is leadership.
While Weber sees leadership by example, vocal direction seems to be lacking.
"Somebody's got to grab it. Somebody's got to be a leader," Weber said. "We've talked a lot about holding everybody accountable, whether it's going to class, getting to practice, playing the intensity level, listening to coaches, saying the right things in the locker room. All that stuff kind of adds up and can be very, very important."
There are some obvious candidates. McGruder puts in as much time as anyone and plays hard nonstop. Rodriguez is the point guard, the floor general. Will Spradling understands the system perhaps better than anyone else. Weber could see any of these guys taking the reins.
For that to happen, though, someone has to speak up.
"Right now that's the main thing that we're working on," Spradling said. "We don't really have anybody that's vocal enough. (McGruder)'s never really been that vocal type of person. That's something that he's working on too. It could pretty much be anybody."
In the meantime, the seniors will continue to lead by example — and for now, that is OK.
"They're not as vocal as I'm sure they will be in the future, but they work hard," assistant coach Alvin Brooks said. "If they work hard, nobody else has any choice but to work hard because they've been through it before, and they've won a lot of games for Kansas State, so that's going to do nothing but help us get better as a team."