KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bruce Weber warned from the start that his Kansas State Wildcats would encounter some bumps in the road.
Especially as they navigated the nonconference portion of their season minus three seniors that were the face of the program for the past three years.
Losers in four of their last six games — the only victories came at home against lowly Florida A&M and Alabama State — the Wildcats (6-4) face another challenge at 6 p.m. Saturday when they face Saint Louis (9-2) at the Sprint Center. While dubbed the Wildcat Classic on a neutral court, it counts as a home game for K-State.
The Wildcats are coming off a 67-61 loss to Mississippi State in Newark, N.J., a game in which they led much of the second half, only to stumble down the stretch. The same thing happened the week before in a 73-65 home loss to Marquette.
"Obviously you hope they're disappointed," Weber said Thursday. "Coaches and fans take it a lot harder than the players. They seem to respond better.
"But we have to have a little more sense of urgency and that's been our emphasis. Especially at gut-check parts of games. Making the little plays, whether it's securing the ball, boxing out, defending, whatever it might be."
To fire up the troops, Weber invoked the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Blues, a pair of last-place teams that went on to win a World Series and Stanley Cup.
"We're close on a lot of games" he said. "We knew we had a new team, we have a mixture of new, young team, different roles and probably a little harder for some of them than they ever anticipated.
"I think we've made some progress over the last few weeks, but it hasn't been enough to get over the hump to win the games that we want to win. Now we've got to see if we can take a step forward. A lot of things can happen."
Saint Louis, which has won six of its last seven, present a physical challenge for the Wildcats, who especially have struggled on the interior. Their minus-0.5 average rebounding margin are a major concern against a Billiken team that ranks 11th nationally in rebounds per game, eights in offensive rebounds and 31st in rebounding margin at plus-7.7.
"(Saint Louis is) very, very physical, but a really good offensive rebounding team," Weber said. "It's something we haven't been great at — securing the ball, boxing out, being physical — and we've got to have some guys step up if we're going to make progress and get a win on Saturday.
"It will not be an easy game."
Senior forward Makol Mawien leads K-State in rebounding with 5.3 a game and is third in scoring at 8.2 points, but besides his eight rebounds, he was 1 of 6 from the field and turned the ball over seven times against Mississippi State. Leading scorer (14.4) and No. 2 rebounder (5.2) Xavier Sneed was 2 of 11 from the floor with eight points and had just two rebounds in the game.
Freshman forward Antonio Gordon had a career-high nine rebounds in the Mississippi State game and eight in each of the previous two. And fellow freshman Montavious Murphy, whom Gordon replaced in the starting lineup, should be back from injury in a limited capacity after missing the last seven games.
"I feel like we're definitely making some progress," Gordon said. "We're right there. I feel like we can compete with any team in the country and we know that, but we've just got to do the little things that will help us win.
"If we get that down, I feel like we're going to be a good team down the stretch."
The Sprint Center game is part of the stretch run in the nonconference schedule, with only a home game against Tulsa remaining before the Jan. 4 Big 12 opener at Oklahoma. They also have a Jan. 25 game at Alabama as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Saint Louis, which beat Maryville 82-69 on Tuesday, has two different players averaging double-doubles. Junior guard Jordan Goodwin, at 6-foot-3, leads the Billikens in both scoring at 15.6 points per game and rebounding at 11.5, while 6-7 forward Hasahn French adds 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds.
Gibson Jimerson averages 10.8 points off the bench and has a team-high 24 3-point baskets.
"Goodwin is a high-level football guy, very physical," Weber said. "We're going to deal with his physicality.
"French has had 24 rebounds, I believe, in one of the games. You have two guys that I think have had 20 rebounds in a game, and as a team we only get 30, 32 (actually 34.9), so that's pretty impressive."