Jeremiah Massey isn't a messiah, but the senior forward delivered a message to Kansas State supporters during a summer event that brought them to their feet.
"Getting to the [NCAA] tournament is a guarantee," Massey said. "We're definitely going to be in the top echelon of the Big 12. We're going to be good."
Asked later where K-State, which won six league games last year, would finish in the league, Massey replied, "At least in the top three."
Some would contend such a statement is as wild as Massey's unkempt hairdo. K-State has never finished in the upper half of the Big 12. But the return of 11 players and a two-year extension for Jim Wooldridge provides optimism in year five of the Manhattan Project.
A group of sophomores will help provide the team's core. Wooldridge must count on Massey, last season's Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, for big-time production to back up his big-time prediction.
FRONTCOURTMassey's team-high 14.7-point average was the best output for any K-State newcomer in 13 years. He also led the club in rebounding. Wooldridge would now like to see the senior emerge as a team leader.
"He'll be [the core] of our team and we'll let things evolve from there," Wooldridge said. "That's the challenge for him."
Another forward, Marques Hayden, is saddled on the hot seat. He must evolve into a more consistent scorer to help the Wildcats take the next step. Dramane Diarra will likely be an impact player off the bench. He appeared in just 16 games in '03-04 after the NCAA ruled favorably on his eligibility status.
The center spot will be decided between Justin Williams and Tyler Hughes. Hughes is taller (6-foot-11), but Williams (245 pounds) is more physical. He scored a career-high 10 points in his Big 12 debut against Kansas. Whoever takes the starting role must contribute enough to take pressure off Massey.
Cartier Martin is a slashing small forward, who battled injury during conference play. He's improved his ball-handling and plans on taking a larger role in the K-State attack. Martin is eager to live up to his reputation as the program's most heralded signee in the past 20 years.
BACKCOURTWith the departure of Tim Ellis, Jarrett Hart and Frank Richards, K-State lost over 40 percent of its scoring and just under 60 percent of its assists. The torch goes to a group of sophomores headlined by Dez Willingham, who missed six games with a separated shoulder in December that nagged him the remainder of the season. He had started eight games and compiled a 3.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio before sitting against Iowa State on Feb. 25. Martin offers versatility in three-guard sets.
Others, most notably Lance Harris, one of the team's X-factors, will be itching for a chance to help. Wooldridge said freshman Clent Stewart and junior college transfer Fred Peete possess high basketball IQs and will contend for significant playing time. Stewart can play either point or shooting guard, and Peete is a passer and excellent defender who can play any of three spots.
Curtis Allen, likely the best athlete on the team, may be rusty after suffering a broken right (non-shooting) arm during the off-season.
FINAL ANALYSISThe Wildcats are an enthusiastic and optimistic bunch. K-State has lost 28 straight games to rival Kansas and hasn't made the NCAA tournament since '96. But they ended a 21-game road Big 12 losing streak by winning two of their final three league road games and also thumped No. 11 Texas at home.
"You've got to have physical ability to compete at this level, and we're moving in that direction, but we're also tougher this season and have better team chemistry," Wooldridge said. "We have a more committed group toward improvement. Those things will lend themselves toward more improvement and a more successful year."
How successful? An NCAA tournament invitation? Not likely. But K-State should climb up a rung or two in the Big 12 standings and return to postseason play.