Bruce Weber: “We have to be a team rebounding group”

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ST. LOUIS — Transcript of Bruce Weber’s press conference previewing Kansas State-Kentucky:

MODERATOR: Now the head coach of the Wildcats from Kansas State, a man who knows this room very well. We’re going to ask him to start off with a statement about his team and then we’ll go to questions. Bruce?

COACH WEBER: First, we’re excited to be part of the NCAA Tournament. If you watched us from the start of the year, we had some struggles. One, we didn’t have our big guy, Thomas Gipson early, and we just don’t have the size or depth with the big guys and we needed him And then our freshmen had a lot to learn. And the freshmen have been good for us. They’ve been, you know, probably maybe some of the named freshmen in our league, they surprised a lot of people.

And then I think Shane, Will, Omari, our seniors, have done a great job of accepting their roles, you know, and really taken some pride in it. Not trying to overstep what they can do. And we’ve come together as a good team. I think that’s the biggest thing. When we have success we play as a team. Our assists are up, our defense is good, we are a good team defense. And the thing that we’ve struggled with when we do is probably rebounding, and that will be a big key against Kentucky tomorrow. And we’re looking forward to the challenge.

Q. Hey, Coach, whenever a big team like Kentucky goes up against a slightly smaller team like you guys it can create mismatches both ways. And what do you think you have to do to make that to your advantage?

COACH WEBER: Well, you know, we faced big teams in our league. With Kansas a couple of times, Texas has the big bodies and length. Gonzaga in nonconference. We’ve been able to survive it. It’s tough. I think the big thing will be for us is, you know, we have to be a team rebounding group tomorrow. The guards have to get rebounds, I think that will be a big stat. How many long rebounds, second kind of bouncing, deflected rebounds we get.

And then on the other end, if Shane can make shots and Nino can get great movement and get them spread out, that’s where we have been able to take advantage of big guys.

And then alleys to drive to the basket for Marcus, the pick-and-pops, the big guys making the outside shots, spreading them out. You know,

I guess those are the things that we can take advantage of.

Q. The moderator mentioned, I don’t think anyone around here is as familiar with this building and maybe this room as you. Is that a help? Is that just an anecdote? And unrelated to that, D.J. Johnson being able to play in front of his family. If you can address how he has grown under your watch.

COACH WEBER: I don’t think I have any advantage being here other than, you know, knew which restaurants to go to in town. But I have great memories of St. Louis from here obviously to the Valley Tournament,even going back Purdue ’98 we were in the Sweet 16. My last game as an assistant at Purdue after a long tenure there. And then the Final Four at the Dome. A lot of great memories, and even Game 7 the World Series, I was at that one.

So we’ve had some fond memories of St. Louis. But for D.J., he has been a really nice addition to our team. We had the good fortune when we got the job, Coach Lowery and myself, got D.J., it looked like he was going to Virginia Tech and he made his visit late and just thought that it was too far away. We got a call, I think Coach and I got here the next day. We went into his home. We had him on campus the following day and we signed him like two days later.

And he’s having a really good run for us midseason. Been hampered a little bit by his ankle. But when he is active, you know, he defends in the post, he’s a good rebounder, he runs the court. He’s done a better job of scoring in the paint this year for us. And he’s been, you know, a key member of our team. And when we have success, we talk about a team, 10 guys being productive, and he has definitely been one of them. And I know he’s excited. And Nino Williams, also a St. Louis native. To have those guys come back home, it is a real positive thing for them. Hopefully they play well, that would be a big thing for our big guys to play well, and those two guys will be important.

Q. Probably no surprise to you, but young Marcus does better when he plays against better competition, top R.P.I. 50 teams across the board pretty much. What is it about him that elevates his game to the next level?

COACH WEBER: You know, he’s just been a pretty consistent player for us. And our whole group — we played a lot of, I think it’s 20 teams out of our 32, are NCAA or NIT teams, we played some pretty good competition. Obviously our league has been loaded this year. And he rises up against the best players. Maybe we have to depend on him for scoring and we find him. We know in those games we need him to step up and the players are smart enough to, one, get him open and get him the ball in scoring position.

And then he’s, you know, you have seen it, he’s made big, big shots in stretches of games and especially big games. He’s gone to Willis Reed a couple of times, limping out of the locker room and stepped up and made big shots. And the Kansas game and other games during the year and again, we need our big guys to play well, we need the score if we can score the basketball and he is a major part of that, we will keep them out of transition. And, you know, that’s when they are probably at their best when they can run and beat you down the court.

Q. Bruce, on selection Sunday John Calipari sort of suggested the Selection Committee picked you guys out specifically because of your toughness and physical play. And you would be a tough opponent for them. I am wondering what you think of that. And also, just how physically tough are you guys?

COACH WEBER: Well, I don’t know physically tough we are. We try to guard and we had to find an identity early. We didn’t have much strength, or much size inside. Much length. And we just kind of challenged the guys after the early struggles to become a good defensive team. And I think in this day and age if you try on defense, everybody says you are physical. You know, so I hope we get up on them. I hope we’re able to defend them.

We’re going to have to fight in the post. We’re going to have to limit easy touches in their comfort zones. And I’m not sure if they picked us, you know, to match up with them. Everybody kind of feels why did you get that match-up? And you know, we’re just happy to be in the tournament. Obviously we’re going to be center stage tomorrow night. One of the last games of the evening against one of the top programs in the country. They were No. 1 in some of the preseason polls, so we have a challenge in front of us.

Q. Coach Calipari said before the SEC Tournament he tweaked something. And he has another tweak for this week. Did you pick out anything different they changed from before?

COACH WEBER: I thought they played good basketball. They seemed to shoot the ball well. Just like anybody, you start making baskets and then they have inside presence. Now you spread the defense. You know, I’m not sure, they put in a couple different wrinkles, you know, and probably did a better job of sharing the basketball maybe than they did at different times of the year. They have so many young guys and, you know, we have four. And there are some games we have three on the court at the same time. And it’s tough enough doing that. For them they have at times five guys on the court. So, you know, no matter what you tell the guys now they are not freshmen, they have been through a whole year. They still — they’re still learning and growing. And I’m sure their guys made strides, just like our guys have.

Q. Bruce you mentioned they were preseason No. 1. Watching them are they the most athletically gifted team in the country?

COACH WEBER: I don’t know if they are the No. 1, but they are definitely in the top group in the country when you think about athleticism, size, length. You know, basketball abilities. And they got so many guys that can just go make plays for you. And part of that is their athleticism, their length, and ability to do that. I just think they had a big learning curve and it’s taken them a little bit of time. But obviously I thought last weekend, you know, they played real good basketball. And, you know, I’m hoping they don’t do that tomorrow night, but you got to expect that they’ll play at a high level. This is the time of year when people turn it up and I’m sure they’re going to be, you know, geeked up, ready to go, and we’re going to have to really compete with them.

Q. Bruce, just wondering, how different or is he different Willie Cauley-Stein from the player you recruited when he was in high school?

COACH WEBER: I wasn’t at K-State at that time. I did know him and watched him. Just on the side I was at Illinois at the time and just, you know, you watch all the kids over the summer and see the different teams. But he has the potential. I think Randle is really good, the Harrisons are really good. For his length and ability to move, our highlight clip tape of him is just like, man, he can do some things. And to drive to the basket, jump stop, make a spin move, a shot fake and still make the play. A lot of big guys are falling over by that time. So his shot blocking ability is, you know, a crucial part of their defense. So he is a talented guy. When he’s in the game it definitely gives them another look that we’re going to have to defend and go against on the offensive end.

Q. Bruce, how much does Thomas kind of set the tone for you guys? And what does he do? Why is he effective?

COACH WEBER: With him he’s got a big body. A year ago when I arrived here, now it is two years later, he was over 300 pounds. And we got him down to 260-something and it gives him better endurance. He is still a strong body. And when he can get his body, like Randle does for them, it causes problems. Or the defensive end, when he fights and is active in the post, he’s pretty effective. And he can lean — it is like a heavyweight boxer, you keep leaning and pounding on people it wears them down as it goes. And the other thing he has done, he has taken the most charges on our team. I think he has taken more than the rest combined. And that’s going to be important, because last year we had Jordan Henriquez, who led K-State in the history of shot blocking, and we just don’t have that now. Our alternative is to take charges and be there when they drive to the basket. And they are going to drive to the basket, that’s one thing we know is coming tomorrow. And whether it’s him or whoever else, we have to be in good help-side position and really stay in front of him.

Q. I hope you can go back a little bit to your Illinois days. I know the last press conference for you was really emotional for you. I am wondering what you learned from your time at Illinois from that experience and how gratifying is it now for you to have this type of success?

COACH WEBER: We had a great run there, we had a great run at SIU. You know, obviously you don’t want it to end like it did. Circumstances happen. Our business — it is a business. It’s now a basketball business and it comes down to, you know, winning and producing like your A.D. and president want you to produce. So we’re just very, very fortunate to be at K-State. And it’s — you know, I didn’t know after the ending at Illinois what would come there, but a nice door opened up for myself, my family. I couldn’t be more pleased to be there. And we’ve had a nice run. And I think with the four freshmen we have, we have two guys sitting out, we signed one of the better junior college big guys in the country, we think we have a chance to be pretty good. Not only next year, down the road in the future. And, you know, it’s a good league. And we just enjoy the opportunity that we have.

Q. Bruce, Kentucky’s had some issues this year with transition defense and getting back. Is that something you have seen on tape? How important is it to get out on them and run and get up early?

COACH WEBER: I think, again, that’s part of the freshman the learning curve. You know in high school you are the star and you’re going to the basket and you are not worried about safety. And that’s something he probably has had to constantly remind him. You have to have good defensive balance. Whether it’s whatever Harrison twin is supposed to be there, if they drive to the basket somebody else rotating back. You know, we go through with our freshmen, you know, it’s been an all-year process you make a mistake, you don’t run back as hard as you can. And that’s something as you grow up and get better, make those improvements, you realize that.

So I mean, everyone we’ve talked to said that’s one place you can take advantage of them, is trying to get points in that first 8 or 10 seconds of the shot clock because they don’t always get good matchups. But we have to stop them and get rebounds to do that, so it’s easier said than done and that will be a big key for us. And you know, if you can steal an easy couple of baskets, it really eases the pressure on your team, no doubt.

Q. You mentioned you thought Kentucky played well last weekend. I know you guys ended up on a little bit of a losing streak. Did you feel like you were playing good basketball, you just weren’t winning games? Or were you not playing the kind of basketball you wanted to play?

COACH WEBER: We lost to three teams that are higher seeds than us. And Iowa State went down to the wire. People are predicting Sweet 16, Elite 8, maybe Final Four for them and we had the ball down two and led them down the stretch. And the game before that was Baylor, and they are probably one of the hottest teams in the country. And yet it came down to the end. And before that we had to play a motivated Oklahoma State team that was fighting for their life and yet they have three of the best players in the country on their team. And that game went down to the last four minutes. So we maybe weren’t playing our best, but we were playing pretty good basketball.

You know, I was surprised how well we played against Iowa State, we scored 85 points. One of the most points we scored all year. So I think our league is tough, we have been well prepared. You know, you just have to hope we come out with great energy tomorrow night and we make some shots. Obviously you make a couple of shots it gets you going. But the big thing our guys have to be focused on is battling and competing. If we don’t do that, they are going to have their way with us and they have too much talent and ability and size and athleticism, so that has to be our mindset.

Q. That’s pretty much what I was going to ask about. How well did the Big 12, you think, prepare you for an opponent with that size and talent and athleticism?

COACH WEBER: You know, I would not have predicted our league to have the strength and balance that we had. It surprised even a lot of coaches. I think we caught the nation by surprise and all of a sudden at Christmas somebody says Big 12 is No. 1 R.P.I. and we’re almost finished with all the non-conference and the No. 1 schedule rating, too. And I don’t think the national media like still believed it. I was on interviews with people like, Did you know this? Yeah, I know this. And it’s really, really good. So even Texas Tech, how Tubby — at the end of the year they could have competed with anyone in the country. If he would have got those guys a little earlier and got them going.

So nine games every — it was really, really tough and there are so many different styles. You know, we have to face the size and athleticism of Kansas, the size of Texas, Oklahoma gave us a little bit of the dribble drive. Lon, unbelievable job there, so good offensively. And same with Iowa State, Fred does a good job as anybody spreading you. We played some good people in non- conference — Gonzaga, George Washington, Mississippi, from the SEC. I think it prepared us, we’ll see tomorrow night. I know our guys won’t be scared and that’s an important thing.

Q. Coach, where do you feel like Shane is in kind of the process of reestablishing his reliability?

COACH WEBER: I thought he made shots against Iowa State. Obviously the last play of the game, or one of the last plays of the game he didn’t make probably the right decision. But we need him to make shots. There is no doubt. When he does what he does he is a very intelligent young man, he knows basketball. He is going to coach some day. He knows things that we don’t even see. When he uses his intelligence, he makes shots, spreads defenses. A great passer to Thomas, one of our better post feeders, we are a much better team. Now, can he on the other side combat their size and that? He has to do it with intelligence and with help. And so it’s important. It would be great obviously when we played our best basketball, Texas, Kansas, some of our big wins we had nine, 10 guys being productive. And that’s including him. And it’s — if we are going to make any kind of run we have to be the best team on the court each of the next two times we go out there.

Q. Bill Self reiterated as long as he was head coach that Kansas would not play Missouri. I am wondering giving your background and connections with this area, will Kansas be the dam-breaker or what will it take?

COACH WEBER: I thought you were going to say Wichita, and now you threw in Missouri and caught me off guard a little bit. We actually may play Missouri next year. They are in Maui and we might not have a choice. But right now it’s a difficult thing. I just got to the Big 12. Bill had been in there a long time and his background is Big 12. I know there are some hurt feelings. Just like anything in life, as time goes on it heals wounds. And I wish Missouri was in the Big 12 now that I’m in it, it’s a great league. They would add to it. And we’ll see what happens.

I think it’s made a decision that Kansas is our sister school in the state. Right now I think we’re both probably not looking at Missouri as an opponent, but I am sure down the road something may happen. Because it would be a great game for Kansas City, for both of us or either one of us, you know. We played Florida there last year and that’s just a great venue. If you have Mizzou there, like I had the opportunity with Illinois playing here in St. Louis. It’s one of the greatest non- conference rivalries in the country. So I could see it down the road. But right now I’m sure unless we play them at Maui, I am sure it’s something that’s going to take a little time to get through the problems that everyone went through with the Big 12.

THE MODERATOR: All right thank you, Bruce. Good luck.

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Photo of Bruce Weber by McClatchy

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