MANHATTAN, Kan. — West Virginia will venture into Kansas State on Jan. 9 for a game where the sole importance will be two teams trying to pick up their first Big 12 win of the season after starting 0-2 in league play.
It is not the buildup either team would have expected for this game back in October, when the Wildcats (10-4, 0-2 Big 12) were predicted to finish second in the conference and the Mountaineers (8-6, 0-2) were right behind them in third.
Then again, when it comes to the trio of seniors — Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown — the Wildcats have this season, nothing could really surprise them anymore.
“I think we’ve pretty much seen it all,” Stokes said during Big 12 media day. He is expected to play Jan. 9 after missing a game with a foot injury last week. “We’ve been at the bottom and worked our way up. You go through a lot of different experiences and see a lot of stuff when you do that.”
Their run has gone from Big 12 bottom-feeder to the 2018 Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Even that had its adversity, as Wade missed all but eight minutes of the tournament with a foot injury he suffered in the Big 12 tournament.
The loss of Wade to a second foot injury this season has played a major role in the Wildcats’ winless start in conference play. Wade, who averaged 13.6 points and 7.8 rebounds this season before the second injury, isn’t expected to return until the second half of conference play.
“They’ve pretty much got everyone else back,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said in scouting the Wildcats. “They’re getting good play from their guards and they’ve really started to throw ball into the post.”
West Virginia, too, has seen its rotation of players change on a game-by-game basis this season, with center Sagaba Konate’s right knee injury playing the largest role. Junior point guard Beetle Bolden has also been in and out with hand and elbow injuries and forward Derek Culver missed the team’s first 10 games after a suspension for a violation of team rules.
All of it thrown together has created this matchup of unexpected circumstances. The unexpected, Wade said, is what this group of seniors were thrown into four years ago.
“I don’t think either of us really knew what to think during our freshman year,” Wade said at Big 12 media day. “We all got thrown into the lineup and we had to play against guys who were better than us at that time. It was one growing experience after the other and you just hope it ends at some time, but you don’t know when.”
That was 2015-’16, when the Wildcats were coming off a 15-17 season that not only saw losses pile up, but also one player after another transfer out of the program, including leading scorer Marcus Foster, who transferred to Creighton.
“They were happy for the opportunity to start and play,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said during Big 12 media day. “Now, when they got here, it was a whole other thing and the league was so tough. I still remember one of final games that first year was against Texas Tech and Barry hadn’t scored. I was like, ‘Come on Barry, I need something from you.’ He was so worn out. I think all of them were worn out. They learned from it and got motivation from it. We got into the NCAA tournament the next year and won a game and then we took that and went to the Elite Eight last year, so it’s been an incredible ride for them so far.”
Brown, a guard who is averaging 13.6 points and 4.4 rebounds, is the leader of sorts.
“Barry is like part of our coaching staff,” Weber said. “He’s always poking his head in our office going, ‘When’s the staff meeting, coach?’ He’ll sit in with us and talk. He loves the game. He’s always around it. It’s almost too much.”
Stokes is the defensive minded specialist. A 6-foot speedster from Baltimore, who made the trek to Manhattan with the idea of wanting to help build and turn around the program.
“We were basically told the first day we got there that a lot was going to be asked of us,” Stokes said. “Coaches kept telling us that however far the program went was going to depend on us. That’s what got me excited. We took it upon ourselves to show the way.”
Wade is the quiet assassin; the 6-foot-8 under-recruited forward who chose the Wildcats over Wichita State. He’s used that 6-8 frame to knock down 111 3-pointers over his career.
“Dean, just to get him to smile as a freshman and sophomore, I would have to sit and talk and joke with him,” Weber said. “Now, he teases me. He talks, ‘What up, coach?’ and that kind of thing. People who have been associated with our program often talk about how much he’s changed as a person over the course of his career.”
The Wildcats have changed, too. Before Wade’s injury, Kansas State had reached as high as No. 12 in the country this season. Since the injury, Kansas State has struggled offensively in conference losses to Texas Tech and Texas.
But, Kansas State has been here before, and it’s unlikely the Wildcats’ seniors are looking for negative ending on their story.
“Even when things were going so bad for us as freshmen, I thought we had the potential to do something great down the road,” Brown said at Big 12 media day. “I knew we would stick together and work through things. Going to the Elite Eight last year was great, but we still have work to do. We’re picked second this year. That’s not first. We don’t want to be about finishing second.”
Huggins said backup point guard Brandon Knapper would make the trip to Kansas State after missing last week’s game against Texas for “conduct unbecoming of a Mountaineer.”