KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Life is a little different these days for Bruce Weber.
For starters, the Kansas State men’s basketball coach can bank on having at least one sore hand by the time his Saturday nights roll around.
“If you go to a football game and I’ve gotta do 20,000 high-fives and sign autographs, that I guess (shows) they’re pretty excited about it,” Weber told The Topeka Capital-Journal on Wednesday at Big 12 media day at Sprint Center. “But I know that comes and goes.”
Entering his eighth year with the Wildcats, Weber’s dynamic with K-State fans has long been one of peaks and valleys.
A co-Big 12 regular season champion in his first campaign (2012-13) as well as last year, Weber has compiled a 150-89 record in Manhattan with five NCAA Tournament berths. The Wildcats kick off their season with an 8 p.m. Friday exhibition opener against Emporia State at Bramlage Coliseum.
“The good, loyal fans, they’re always there. They’re excited. They want you to do well. I think they understand that every year is not going to be perfect,” Weber continued. “At the same time it’s been very positive. There’s great energy everywhere I go — grocery stores, church, wherever it may be, people are excited about K-State basketball.”
Weber hasn’t had to worry about many valleys of late.
Two seasons ago, K-State knocked on the door of the Final Four, coming up just short in a 78-62 defeat to Cinderella squad Loyola-Chicago in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats entered that NCAA Tournament as a nine-seed, losers of six of their final 12 ahead of March Madness.
The heat on Weber during that period was palpable, at least among a noticeable chunk of vocal Wildcat fans on social media — athletic director Gene Taylor gave Weber a public vote of confidence in the midst of that late-season swoon, but it’s impossible to know what the program’s future would’ve looked like had the group not made that postseason push.
So how did Weber tune out the noise then, as well as any game-to-game criticism that still crops up?
For starters, he doesn’t spend much time on social media, if any — his Twitter account has more than 48,000 followers, but the head coach himself follows just 99 accounts. The only newspaper he reads is USA Today. Sports talk doesn’t have a home on his radio dial.
“That’s how you can control it. You can’t worry about it,” Weber said. “People will tell my wife (Megan) things and she’ll come to me and go, ‘Is this true?’ I’ll say, ‘I have no idea.’ We just kind of stay in our world that we enjoy.
"It’s about our program, our players. It’s about our family. That’s all we can worry about. Whether it’s fair or not fair, we understand about fans and how they can be.”
There’s “no doubt,” Weber said, that the team’s recent strides are paying off in the recruiting world. The Wildcats already have four commits in the Class of 2020, including four-star players Nijel Pack (6-foot guard out of Indianapolis) and Selton Miguel (6-4 forward out of Orlando, Fla.), and Rivals pegs their incoming recruiting class as the 13th-best nationally, at the moment ahead of even in-state rival Kansas (35th).
Something as simple as a consistent Top 25 ranking and the SportsCenter highlights that come along with that have been a boon in getting the program into living rooms.
“Every time that’s like a commercial for your program,” Weber said. “And then if you go to an Elite Eight, all that exposure, and you win a Big 12 championship, all that exposure, it all helps, there’s no doubt about that. I wouldn’t say we’re a household name, but we’ve definitely gotten ourselves where people know who we are and they feel good about our program.”
And if nothing else, vanquishing the Jayhawks’ 14-year streak of regular-season conference championships seems to have bought a healthy amount of goodwill for Weber, who said Wildcat fans often thank him for that feat specifically.
“It was important to a lot of people. And I think to me, it’s great for our league,” Weber said. “I think our league has been so good. You have to give Kansas so much credit because it’s been the best league six out of the last seven years, RPI, and they’ve been able to win that six of the times and we’ve been able to do it two of the times. You have to give them credit. Obviously I think our league, it’s gotten to a point where it’s more than just Kansas, I hope.”
This season may be a challenging one for Weber — at least that’s the expectation among his colleagues.
Just one year after being selected as the second-place finisher in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll, the Wildcats were this go-round picked ninth, tied for the lowest projection for the program in Weber’s tenure (2016-17). Gone are senior standouts Barry Brown (14.6 points per game), Dean Wade (12.9) and Kamau Stokes (11), the team's three leading scorers from a season ago.
Weber said he anticipates some growing pains as players try to figure out new roles.
“I think there’s a lot of positive energy, there’s no doubt about that, and excitement, but we’ve got to keep it going,” Weber said. “Fans are fans. You want them to continue to feel good about it. We know we lost a lot from last year, but we still feel good about our guys and the experience we have back and the new guys we’ve added and just hope we’ll continue to be exciting.
“Now, can we be an Elite Eight team or win the Big 12? I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But you know, I think we can have a very competitive year.”