Here’s what Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber had to say Wednesday, one day before his Wildcats face Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament South Region:
Opening statement: “Well, obviously we’re excited to be part of this, to be in the Sweet 16. I’m just so happy for our players. They’ve been very dedicated, worked very hard. It’s been a great group from really day one. And I’ve talked about it before, just getting in the tournament last year and getting to play in Dayton, getting a win, it was such a motivator for them to get a taste of it. It led right into our workouts in the spring, in the summer, and the great leadership of Barry Brown and Dean Wade, Mason Schoen, Kam Stokes, they really took our group to a new level.
“We’ve really persevered, if you look at all the things that have happened to us, the injuries. It seems like next man up has been definitely something that’s -- they’ve kind of bought into. You know, I’m just proud of them and happy to be part of it.
“Obviously we have a challenge. I think Kentucky, Coach Cal, does a better job defensively than people give him credit for. Obviously their length causes you problems, and we’re catching them at a -- when they’re hot. I think nine out of ten, won the SEC tournament. They’ve got good players. They’ve got size. You know, we’ve just got to hope we can -- we have got to come out, fight them, grind it out, and hope that somebody can step up and make some shots.
Coach, there’s been some re-seeding, so to speak, media re-seeding the 16 teams, and you guys have been parked at or near the bottom in every one I’ve seen. Do your guys pay any attention to that? Is that a motivator or just something you tune out?
“I don’t know if they saw it, but we made sure they saw it, and we put it up on the board. Obviously the game was ugly the other day, but I don’t think people appreciate what UMBC did to Virginia. You’re talking the best team in the country for most of the year, and that team was tough to play.
“How our guys played to exhaustion, how their guys played to exhaustion, obviously it wasn’t the prettiest game. And I’m sure that’s how people would rate you off of that thing, but I’m just -- again, I’m proud of our guys and what they’ve done and how they’ve fought.
“You can also look at the defensive numbers. We’re last in the ratings, but we’re No. 1 in the defensive ratings: Defensive efficiency, points per game, I believe. So that always give you a chance and they’ve bought into that, done what the coaches have asked, and that’s why we’ve had a successful season, and that’s why we’re here.”
Any change in Dean Wade’s status since last time we talked?
“Well, if you saw -- you were out there, he got a little bit -- we loaded it, we got him moving a little bit. He did some 5 on 0, a little bit of live stuff today, just to see how he feels. Every day they’ve increased it. He’s got to points to now where he doesn’t have pain with the boot on, which is a positive step. Now we’ll see when we did something, how he reacts.
“You know, he’s not going to be a 30-minute guy, but we can get like NBA, the minute guy, a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there. Obviously smart, he does a lot of good things for us, it would be a nice boost. I know the guys were excited to have him back and cheering him on today.”
Bruce, this is the third team you’ve taken to the Sweet 16, three different programs, three different teams. What has been the same about your approach in each of those situations?
“Well, and then I’ve also been part of -- when I was at Purdue, we did it several times, so you have that experience.
“You know, I think the big thing is that at SIU we weren’t ready for it. I mean, it surprised us. I didn’t even know who we were playing, what bracket we were in, whatever. I was just happy to be there, and we found a way to beat Georgia and Chicago. If you remember back, that was UConn, Kentucky, Maryland, and us; and Maryland ended up winning that thing. Our guys ran out -- there were several of them who were at our game last week, and they brought it. We ran out there and they looked at the banners and, we don’t belong, Coach.
“I think since then, I’ve learned to, hey, this is not about just getting there, it’s about moving forward and making sure they understand that that was our emphasis yesterday. Can’t stop here. You’ve got to keep moving forward. You’ve got a chance. Obviously there’s been so much chaos in this year’s tournament, and you say, hey, Kentucky is favored. Yeah, fine, so was Virginia, so was Michigan State, so was all the other teams, and they all are not playing and we’re playing. I think we’ve got to have a good mindset, and I guess more than anything, that’s what I’ve changed.
“My first team at Illinois, I talked about getting to the Sweet 16. I didn’t talk about getting to the Final Four, and I thought I capped them. And that summer then I said, we’re going to the Final Four. We gave out tee shirts, and that’s what happened.
“So, I guess, different is just kind of saying not just get there, let’s get further and further and keep making that next step.”
I noticed Sunday’s game, especially in the second half when you guys were on defense on the opposite end of the court, you were definitely yelling at them and trying -- not yelling at them but yelling things to them, and moving closer to that mid-court line. I wanted to ask you, the coaches’ box was expanded this year --
“No, for me, I think.”
Have you noticed a real difference in your ability to operate as you want?
“I mean, everyone gets carried away. I think if you watch games, a lot of guys go a step out or so. The refs continue to -- my thing is if you yell at the refs, you should get a technical. If you’re coaching your kids, I don’t understand, what’s the -- there is no effect on it. I’ve applied to be on the Rules Committee several times, and they’ve turned me down.
“But you know, I don’t understand that. If we’re bothering them, give them a technical. If we’re coaching our guys, that’s what we’re paid to do. You know, so it -- obviously it was a grind-out game, emotional game, exhausting game. I was just trying to encourage that and keeping them going. I don’t know what was it, nine straight times we didn’t score, but we kept the lead, so we had ten straight stops.
“And you just encourage them, keep them -- but I have had officials tell me that it was expanded for me, so that’s why I’m joking about it.”
With the work that you and your family have done for Coaches Versus Cancer and other philanthropic endeavors, you have been like a hero to many, but who is your hero?
“Oh, I think my hero had to be my dad and mom, my parents. You know, just -- my dad came over on a boat from Austria. And my grandparents, you just think about what they did, and the sacrifice they made to give us a chance. My dad and mom said all five of the kids were going to be teachers and coaches, and we all are.
“We were afraid of my dad if we didn’t do it, and he just said there was no better life than to help others, and what better way to do it than teach and coach. At that time he said, you’ve got your summers off. Well, obviously now in coaching, even high school coaches, they don’t have the summers off. So my parents are definitely my heroes.
“I just watched my mom sacrifice for so many people and help so many people. And I always told myself, if I ever get to a position where I can help others, that was going to be my, whatever, commitment, to be there to help, whether it’s Coaches Versus Cancer or whatever it might be. And my wife, my family, and I think it’s great for my kids to see that. We’re so blessed and have so much given to us that, you know, when we give -- and I talk to our players all the time, the more you give, the more you receive, and I really believe that, and that’s how I try to live my life.”
I’ve been asking the coaches today about their first jobs in the business, and I was curious, what do you remember about what you did for Coach Keady, and what did that mean for you in your career?
“It was a crazy thing. Coach Keady gets mad when I tell it, but at Western Kentucky, I applied for a grad assistant, and he said, come down and meet me, and I drove nine hours. And for me at that time -- I had never driven nine hours from Milwaukee to Bowling Green, and when I got there, I had my leisure suit, I was ready to go. And he wasn’t there, and he was not only not in town, he was out of the country, and he totally forgot about me.
“I was just heartbroken because this was my -- I thought I was going to get into college coaching. I had taken off work in camp, I drove all the way back. About a week later, I got on a pay phone, working camp, Marquette University High School, put my quarters in because there was no cell phones yet. And I called, and I got Coach Keady. I said, I came down there -- yeah, I’m sorry, he said, drive back down. And I said, hey, I can’t do that, I’m running camp. You either hire me or not.
“And obviously if I would have known how mean he was and tough he was, I would have never done that, but I didn’t know any different. And he said, okay, I’ll hire you, be here on whatever date. And he had never met me, and I was with him 19 years. He gave me a chance in the business, and when you talk about heroes, obviously for a coach to -- what he did for me and what he’s done for so many, it’s amazing.
“That was the start, and the next year he went to Purdue, and he said, you want to go to Purdue? And okay, come on up. And then we were at Purdue for that long time.
“So he got me into the business. But the first NCAA Tournament, Western Kentucky, we hosted, and it was Kentucky with Kyle Macy. It was Isaiah Thomas, Indiana, they were all in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Toledo was there, they had great players, Harvey Knuckles, Dick Miller. For me I was just in awe and appreciative, so appreciative of Coach Keady.”
Both you and Coach Calipari have been doing this for a long time. What is your relationship with him, and any significant meetings with him in the past that stand out in your mind?
“Well, we played them a couple years ago. They were the 8 and 9 and we were the 9. I don’t know why they were the 8 because I think that was the year with Harrisons, and they were really, really good, and we battled them. You know, so way back when we were at Purdue he was at UMass, we played one of his early teams. They came to Mackey Arena. I remember that.
“But those have been the only times that I’ve really had games against him, I guess. Obviously he’s done amazing things at several programs, and as I said, I think he doesn’t get enough credit for what he -- how he develops his teams. They’re really good defensively right now. That’s one of my biggest fears for our team, how we’re going to find a way to score.”
How gratifying is it to get back to this Sweet 16 stage after that early success you had at Illinois and even at Southern?
“You know, it’s great. It’s great for our kids, great for our program. We have such a good group. I couldn’t ask for a better group to get here, and they’ve earned it. They’ve worked hard.
“You know, it’s good for our program, for our fans. It’s exciting.
“My K-State team, my first year there, I thought that was a team -- definitely was a Sweet 16 team. Wichita ended up going that year. We would have been in that bracket, and just so disappointing. But that’s the tournament. You watch this year, there’s so many teams that lose.
“But we’ve got a good group, and it’s fun, and I’m glad they got rewarded. Even when I doubted without telling them, they didn’t doubt. You lose your point guard two, three games into the Big 12, the toughest conference in the country, and man, can we survive? And they didn’t doubt, they kept moving. You learn something from them, their hope and belief that they can be good, and they weren’t going to let our team down, and they didn’t.”
Loyola has earned a lot of attention. Can you relate to what BRUCE WEBER is going through as a coach, Missouri Valley Conference program, being looked at, generating the sort of buzz he’s created?
“Yeah, it’s great for him. He’s a good person. We’ve known for a long time he got a -- he had a job, lost his job, he got a second chance. To win the league, win it outright, win the tournament, get here, and now win some games -- I’m sure, somebody else asked me. I know what we went through at Southern, the attention you get. It’s one thing to get in, you get attention. But to get to the 16 as a mid-major I guess you could call them. They sure don’t play like it. It’s overwhelming. I’m sure in Chicago it’s probably even more overwhelming because they’re the one team that’s still around.
“You’ve got to deal with that. You’d better enjoy it. But at the same time, you’ve got to try to keep the kids focused on being able to win and keep moving forward. I guess at SIU -- I guess I would have been a little better about focusing and seeing -- I remember I did 25 radio interviews in one day. You know, you can’t think about coaching, you’ve got so much going on. But it’s also good for your program.
“I’m happy for him and his group, and the Missouri Valley, Doug Elgin is one of the best, the commissioner, and happy for them.”