- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) - Kansas State knew there would be some growing pains last season, especially after coach Bruce Weber essentially cleaned house and brought in eight newcomers.

There is no such excuse this season.

The Wildcats bring back the bulk of their scoring and rebounding from a team that still managed to go 17-16 and beat then-No. 1 Oklahoma, including all those freshmen and transfers who had no choice but to learn on the job. They also added a talented recruiting class to fill some critical holes.

The result is a team that, at least on paper, could be the best that Weber has had since going 27-8 and earning a share of the Big 12 championship in his debut five years ago.

“We were probably three or four possessions away from being in the NCAA tournament (last year),” Weber said, “but we didn’t get there. Now after a year of experience, a trip to Europe, adding a couple guys, you hope all that adds up to having success.”

There have been a couple of departures, of course. Big man Stephen Hurt and veteran scorer Justin Edwards graduated, Brandon Bolden retired due to an injury and Ron Freeman transferred.

Meanwhile, the recruiting class that Weber lured to Manhattan may be one of his best, headlined by four-star prospect Xavier Sneed from St. Louis. The 6-foot-5 scoring machine should carve a place in the regular rotation by the season opener against Western Illinois. Fellow freshmen Cartier Diarra and James Love could also earn early playing time.

“D.J. (Johnson) and I need to lead the young guys and be that big help for them,” said senior forward Wesley Iwundu, the top returning scorer. “We’re just ready to go out there and show everybody what we can do, and just kind of get to it this year.”

As the Wildcats get ready for the season, here are the major story lines to watch:

DEAN’S PROGRESS

Dean Wade was the top prep player in Kansas before arriving at Kansas State, but it was a big jump from his tiny high school to the Big 12. The 6-10 Wade, listed at 225 pounds, spent the offseason putting on muscle, but his biggest leap may come in his confidence. “I’ve been working on getting my mindset right,” Wade said. “This year I feel like it’s all coming a lot easier for me.”

STOKES IS BACK

Kamau Stokes had his promising freshman season shortchanged by a knee injury that required surgery. He was averaging more than nine points through the first 21 games. “We have to be careful with him,” Weber said. “Mentally he has to go through the fear factor. We obviously need him and we just got to be patient with him but he also has to work at it to get that knee back.”

EXPERIENCE

Stokes and Wade aren’t the only ones who got their first taste of Division I hoops last year. Barry Brown played nearly 26 minutes a game, while Carlbe Ervin II provided some valuable minutes in the backcourt after transferring from an Oklahoma junior college. There has been so much roster turnover at Kansas State that Iwundu could best be described as a survivor. The versatile forward has played important minutes since his freshman season, and has already appeared in 97 games for the Wildcats.

POST PRESENCE

Wade and Johnson area somewhat undersized post players, so finding big bodies to take the place of Hurt will be important. The 6-10 Love and 6-11 redshirt freshman Isiah Maurice could need to step up despite their inexperience.

SCHEDULE SITUATION

Most of the Wildcats’ non-conference games are winnable, including games against Washington State, Colorado State and Boston College. Their toughest test could be if they meet Maryland at the Barclays Center Classic in late November.

“I’m very confident,” Ervin said. “We have more depth and right now an eight-player rotation. We got a lot of people that know what they are doing now. And experience, D.J. is really, really healthy and Wes is shooting the ball well. Everything is going well right now.”

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