Fueled by tough two years, Kansas State's Wesley Iwundu focused on turning Wildcats around
Yes, he watches. Of course Wesley Iwundu watches. Everybody watches those three weeks in March, when 68 teams flit across our flat screens.
Unlike most, Kansas State’s senior forward hates it on some level, though. Hates it, because he recalls not one shining moment but 40 fleeting minutes.
They came in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when K-State pushed no less a team than lordly Kentucky before losing 56-49.
One set of Wildcats – those from the Bluegrass State – went all the way to the championship game, where they lost to Connecticut.
The other set went home, and haven’t been invited back to the Big Dance (or, for that matter, any other postseason tournament) the last two years.
Maybe now, Iwundu says, even though K-State was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12, in the conference’s preseason poll. And even though the Wildcats are painfully young.
“Going into the season, we felt like we were capable of getting back to that point of being good,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be easy, but missing it the past two years has really been disappointing to us, and we really don’t want to go through it again, so this year we’re really focused on things and just trying to get things right in order to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”
They are 4-0 heading into Friday’s game against Boston College on ASN, part of the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn. The 6-7 Iwundu, an All-Big 12 third-teamer a year ago, would like to think that the ‘Cats are more balanced and explosive this season.
He would also like to think he has rounded out his own game after spending the offseason polishing his jumper, as he is averaging 14 points a game so far (including a career-high 23 against Hampton), while shooting 51.4 percent from the floor and 50 percent from the 3-point line.
Anything to avoid the emptiness he has felt the last two springs.
“It’s not a good feeling,” he said. “And it’s not a feeling any of us want to go through again, so whatever it takes for us to get back to that point we’re doing it and trying to prepare ourselves for the future by working hard now.”
By every other measure he has enjoyed a productive career. His 849 career points put him on track to become the 27th player in school history to eclipse 1,000. He is also the seventh K-State player to accumulate over 750 points, 350 rebounds and 200 assists. Two of the others to reach that milestone are Mitch Richmond and Rolando Blackman, who went on to long, productive NBA careers.
“That means a lot,” Iwundu said. “It’s a great honor to be mentioned with those guys, some of the K-State greats. It’s just something I take pride in, in my game — just the versatility.”
That extends to the other end of the court. He made the conference’s all-defensive team last season and has been named the team’s top defender two of his first three years. Particularly notable was his effort against Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield last Feb. 6.
Hield, who would become a first-round draft pick of the New Orleans Pelicans, torched the Wildcats for 31 points on 11-for-14 shooting a month earlier. But Iwundu limited him to 7-for-16 accuracy and 23 largely inconsequential points in the rematch, an 80-69 K-State upset of a team then ranked No. 1.
“Definitely I felt like the game against Oklahoma last year was kind of an eye-opener for a lot of people,” Iwundu said, “but defense is something I’ve prided myself on since I’ve been playing basketball. That game was a big statement game for myself and also my team last year to show what we’re capable of. That game I would definitely say the defense was pretty nice.”
As was that long-ago NCAA appearance. The Wildcats went 20-13 that year but slipped to 15-17 Iwundu’s sophomore season, a season in which three players were dismissed from the team and three others transferred. Four of them were Iwundu’s classmates, and he considered leaving as well.
“Sometimes you have your doubts,” he said. “It’s normal to have your doubts.”
He talked it out with his family, and ultimately decided to stick it out.
“I think it just made me stronger as a person, and I grew up a little bit,” he said. “It helped me get to this point where I am right now.”
Though come March, there’s one other place he’d really like to be.
Above: Photo courtesy Kansas State Athletics