Nov. 08--Nov. 8--Toward the end of last season, Dean Wade witnessed guard Mike McGuirl's transformation right before his eyes when Kansas State practiced -- or so he thought.
McGuirl, once reserved, was now assertively taking the ball to the hole. On defense, he talked trash. He played with energy and, to Wade, seemed to be more comfortable.
But that was practice.
"On the court in games, it was completely different," Wade said. "I didn't really get it."
It's easy to tell, Wade said, when a player isn't confident. He appears down on himself and it sticks out. That's what he saw in McGuirl, who he said looked to be a little shell-shocked and nervous when he took the floor in front of fans with time on the clock and something on the line.
McGuirl was a true freshman last season, so perhaps some -- or most -- of that was to be expected. Especially because McGuirl didn't play in the first 13 games of the year after suffering an injury in the preseason. Heck, even when McGuirl had been practicing with K-State for four weeks after being cleared, he still wasn't supposed to play.
"Mike will probably redshirt unless something crazy happens," K-State head coach Bruce Weber told reporters in late December.
To that point, McGuirl said it was difficult not to think: "Why am I even doing this?" He would work so hard ... to not play.
But in January, guard Kamau Stokes suffered an injury against Texas Tech, and suddenly, McGuirl was forced into action. Twelve games later, he has quite the experience to learn from as he begins his sophomore season.
McGuirl averaged 12.5 minutes per game until the NCAA Tournament, when he clocked 21.5 minutes per game. He made the most of that time, which shocked most everyone but himself and his teammates.
In the Wildcats' first game of March Madness against Creighton, McGuirl dropped 17 points off the bench on 6-for-10 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. It was McGuirl's career high, as well as the largest scoring output by a K-State freshman in an NCAA Tournament game since Michael Beasley scored 23 against Wisconsin in 2008.
"It was something I dreamed of growing up," McGuirl said at K-State's media day on Sept. 26. "Everybody dreams of playing that big game in the NCAA Tournament."
He scored 31 of his 40 points last season in the final five games, shooting 37 percent overall. Finally, he had received his opportunity after weeks of staying ready. He never knew if it would come.
"I was hopeful, but at the same time, I didn't just hope for it -- I worked for it," McGuirl said.
To show up in March was something special for a Connecticut kid who grew up loving basketball. He hooped since he could walk. When he was younger, he had a small plastic hoop in the basement of his family's home.
He dreamed of playing in March Madness with his friends. He'd even act it out. When he was 8, he'd dribble the ball on the basement floor before acting like he was passing to an imaginary teammate. Then, he lobbed himself the ball -- as if one of his friends tossed it to him -- and slammed home the alley-oop.
In 2011, McGuirl witnessed UConn's Kemba Walker leading the Huskies, then a huge underdog, to a national championship. He still has nostalgia thinking about Walker's step-back buzzer-beater that downed No. 3 Pitt in the Big East Tournament when the title run was just getting started.
"As soon as I could think about it, I started to dream about it," McGuirl said of playing college basketball.
But McGuirl -- now listed at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds -- said he wasn't tall or athletic in high school. He didn't have crazy ability. Even now, Wade said McGuirl doesn't look very athletic, but has "crazy bounce."
McGuirl felt he kept pushing each year to become better. He was rated a three-star recruit on 247Sports. He said he had just one scholarship offer as a junior, a point of motivation.
He felt overlooked. He knew he had more in him.
"I love it," he said. "I still feel that same way. I'm just going to continue to try to do what I can do to prove people wrong."
During his prep career, McGuirl won two state championships. His school lost just 17 games when he played.
"What drives me is just my hunger to win," McGuirl said. "My hunger to be better and my hunger to try to be the best. There's all these people that are better than I am, there's all these teams that are better than we are."
The Wildcats enter the season as the No. 12 team in the country in the Associated Press' initial poll. Coming off an Elite Eight run, the hopes, aspirations and expectations are as high as ever.
The role McGuirl will play in the coming months is yet to be seen, but last season's experiences should help.
When he went off against Creighton, his phone blew up. He estimates he received about 300 text messages, but in the coming hours -- and days -- after the final buzzer sounded, he responded to each and every one of them. "It was crazy," he said. He looked back through them a day after the game and realized he forgot to reply to a few people, so he eventually took care of that.
Cartier Diarra and Wade both said they were elated for McGuirl. Finally, the whole world saw what they had witnessed for months.
"What stands out about him is his dog mentality," Diarra said.
As Wade stood on the practice court at media day and pondered which Wildcat had taken the biggest jump over the offseason, he paused for a few moments.
Then a name came to mind.
"Mike McGuirl," he said.
The thing that has held McGuirl back, Wade said, is confidence. "It's in his own mind," he said. Once McGuirl realizes he's talented and has the ability to contribute regularly, Wade expects him to do so.
Wade said he's trying to break McGuirl out of his shell. He wants McGuirl to surprise people, and he knows it's possible.
"He's an unbelievable player," Wade said. "He can be one of the best players K-State has had in a long time."
For McGuirl, the development comes down to hard work and being coachable. He knows that he doesn't know everything, which he said is important to accept. He said not taking criticism personally is crucial.
When he first stepped on the floor last season, he thought it was surreal. Finally, he was playing college basketball.
By the time March Madness rolled around, he had convinced himself to let the feeling go and stay level-headed. He was blessed to be here, but he now knew he belonged.
He made a name for himself in the NCAA Tournament but doesn't want that to be his lasting legacy at K-State.
"It's real special, it's real pleasing," he said. "But I know it was only four games. I've got plenty more basketball games ahead of me. I just want to make the best out of them."
(c)2018 The Manhattan Mercury (Manhattan, Kan.)
Visit The Manhattan Mercury (Manhattan, Kan.) at www.themercury.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.