After ugly start, K-State in thick of Big 12 title chase

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) It may have happened against Texas Southern, when Kansas State allowed an overlooked opponent to score four points in the final second for a numbing two-point defeat.

Or it may have been few days later, when the Wildcats couldn't crack 50 points in a loss to Georgia. Or a few days after that, when star guard Marcus Foster openly sulked after getting benched, and Kansas State was run out of the gym in its Big 12 opener at Oklahoma State.

At some point, everyone seemed to give up on the Wildcats.

They were 7-7 at that point, their season in tatters amid strife and infighting. All the discord resulted in apathy, with legions of fans refusing to show up for a game against TCU. Thousands of empty purple seats filled Bramlage Coliseum.

Barely two weeks later, everything has changed.

Buoyed by five wins in six games, including ranked opponents Oklahoma and Baylor and once-ranked Oklahoma State, the Wildcats (12-8, 5-2) have charged to the top of the Big 12 standings. They are just a half-game behind Kansas for first place heading into Tuesday night's game against No. 17 West Virginia, which is tied with Iowa state another half-game back.

''I think we've made some progress, obviously. Five out of six in the league, and a game at Iowa State we played well enough to win, we just didn't play well enough at the end,'' Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. ''We've made progress. And that's the first thing on the board: You worry about how you're going to help the team, you're going to play well.''

Therein stands the reason for so much dissension early in the season: selfishness.

The biggest offender was Foster, who acknowledged thinking too much about himself - his breakout freshman season, the potential NBA future that awaits him - and not enough about his team. The result was a benching, and that ugly scene in Stillwater. Foster looked a bit like a petulant child who had been grounded as he sat on the bench.

To his credit, Foster owned up to things. Rather than let a rift with Weber grow, he repaired the schism. The sophomore guard became the consummate team player, winning his way back into the starting lineup with inspired play.

When the Wildcats met the Cowboys again on Saturday, Foster scored 14 points in a win.

''It definitely felt like it was a long time ago, more than a couple weeks ago,'' Foster said quietly, ''but my revenge was all about getting a win. All the other stuff, I don't worry about that. They beat us last time. I just wanted to get a win.''

Foster is the most visible sign of change at Kansas State, but not the only one.

Nino Williams has gone from role player to star, pouring in 20 points in Saturday's victory over the Cowboys. Big man Thomas Gipson has emerged as a brute in the paint. Justin Edwards has finally grown accustomed to life in the Big 12 after transferring from Maine, scoring 14 points and making several key plays down the stretch against Oklahoma State.

''I think it's just playing my game, relaxing more, helping Marcus get a break, helping Wes (Iwundu) get a break,'' Edwards said. ''Just got to come in and produce.''

The Wildcats have been producing just enough on offense, but it's been their feisty defense that has been outstanding. They've held 12 of their last 13 opponents to fewer than 65 points. The only team to break that ceiling was the Cyclones, one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.

''Any time you play them, you know you're playing one of the best defensive teams, not just in the league but in the country,'' Oklahoma State guard Phil Forte said. ''Especially at home.''

That's where the Wildcats will be Tuesday night, when the Mountaineers roll into town. After that comes a trip to Allen Fieldhouse and a date with the ninth-ranked Jayhawks.

Two good chances to prove that their rapid rise has been legit.

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