Meet Kansas State's Marcus Foster, NCAA Basketball's Most Underrated Freshman

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Meet Kansas State's Marcus Foster, NCAA Basketball's Most Underrated Freshman
LM Otero/AP Images

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Whenever the recruiting sites came out with a new top-100 list, Marcus Foster and his coaches would search for his name and never find it.

"What do we have to do to get you in?" they'd ask themselves.

Foster had been on the lists early in his career, but a weight issue and an attempt at a position change dropped him from the rankings. He accepted his fate as a middle-tier recruit and was happy to sign with Kansas State.

He accepted that his 2,388 points at Hirschi High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, would not follow him to the Big 12. And he put his scoring average (27.1 as a senior) behind him for humbled new beginnings in Manhattan. 

"I'll play 10-12 minutes, come off the bench, average like six points, get a couple rebounds, couple assists and have a nice, solid year," Foster told teammate Shane Southwell during a ride home one night about two weeks before the season started.

Those were the goals he had set and expected.

"He looked at me funny," Foster said.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

"Bro, you've got an opportunity to at least average—at the lowest—13 or 14 points," Southwell told the freshman.

"I looked at him funny, like, 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" Foster said.

Twenty games into the season for the Wildcats, it appears Southwell knew exactly what he was talking about. Foster is the team's leading scorer at 14.0 points per game. After averaging 16.0 points in wins against George Washington and Oklahoma State earlier this season, Foster won National Freshman of the Week and the Wildcats moved into the Top 25.

Other winners of that award this year include Kentucky's Julius Randle and James Young, KU's Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid, Syracuse's Tyler Ennis and Duke's Jabari Parker.

Where did those other guys rank?

In the top 25 of every recruiting site's rankings.

"We did think he was going to be a high-major player," said Eric Bossi, national recruiting analyst at Rivals.com. "We did think he'd contribute at K-State. But man, who could have predicted he'd be this good this early?"

***

The realization of how good Foster could be came to Southwell during preseason pickup games and late-night shooting contests.

Southwell said one night this fall he pulled up to K-State's practice facility about 11:30 p.m., thinking he'd have the gym to himself, and Foster's car was in the parking lot.

Donald Hedge, head coach at Hirschi, said 24-hour access to the practice gym was the first thing Foster told him about after he arrived in Manhattan.

"It wasn't we've got a huge campus or we've got a huge arena. It wasn't we've got a lot of girls, a lot of women up here to choose from. It wasn't none of that," Hedge said. "It was, 'Coach, I've got a card that I can swipe and I can go to the gym any time I want to.' He was so fascinated by that."

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Foster was in K-State's practice gym some nights until 2 a.m., and he spent so much time there that assistant coach Alvin Brooks III told him he needed to cut back, because he had worn himself down during preseason practices.

Hedge had to have a similar conversation with Foster every spring after Hirschi's season ended.

"I'd almost have to kick him out of the gym," Hedge said. "The kid would just work his body down."

The strong work ethic was always part of who Foster was, but that's the exact opposite perception that recruiting analysts had of him.

That's why Hedge believes that Foster saw several high-major schools cool on his recruitment during the April evaluation period of his junior season, and he takes the blame.

Hedge had asked Foster to take some time off, and Foster put on some weight during that time.

"Marcus is a huge eater," Hedge said. "When people saw him play in April, he was kind of chubby, kind of out of shape, kind of fat."

Before that time, Foster said he had interest from high-major schools like Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, SMU, Marquette, Nebraska, Creighton and K-State. After the weight gain, only K-State, Creighton and Marquette were still interested.

"You see a high school guy getting in bad shape, and you wonder how does a high school kid get out of shape," Bossi said. "What's that mean for his future?"

Foster also tried to show he could play point guard during the summer before his senior season—that's where most teams recruiting him thought he fit at the next level—and he struggled more so than he had in the past playing for his AAU team, the Dallas Mustangs. 

"He had some games in the summer where he played really well and others where he didn't play much," K-State coach Bruce Weber said. "You're kind of doubting...but we went to watch him two or [three] times during the school year and came away thinking this guy is pretty good." 

Brooks had watched plenty of Foster during his time as an assistant at Sam Houston State, and he made sure Weber didn't let the weight issue scare him off.

"Even though he was overweight, we talked about how quick his first step was," Brooks said. "I told Coach Weber, 'I don't know if it'll translate, but his first step is really, really quick.' He was just out of shape so he couldn't keep the burst."

It translated, and the baby fat—or whatever fat he had put on—is gone.

Foster has taken on the role as primary scorer in Weber's motion offense, a role that requires great stamina.

"I had to get in better shape," Foster said. "I couldn't even run off two screens coming in."

Brooks had faith that Foster would get his body right—after all, the guy is majoring in nutrition and kinesiology at K-State—but the assistant coach quickly deflects any sort of praise when asked if he realized that Foster would be this good this fast.

"No. No idea," he said. "We thought he'd be a guy that'd average double figures—maybe five or six (as a freshman)—and eventually get to double figures later on."

***

Nothing has really followed the path of logic when it comes to time and success since Weber arrived at K-State.

In the first nine games of last season, K-State lost by double digits in its two games against ranked opponents (Michigan and Gonzaga) and had a hard time mastering Weber's motion offense. Star Rodney McGruder scored in single digits in four of the Wildcats' first nine games.

McGruder ended up as a first-team All-Big 12 selection, and the Wildcats turned into the second-most efficient offense in the Big 12 and shared the conference title with Kansas.

This year, K-State started 2-3, including a season-opening loss at home to Northern Colorado, and then won 10 straight games before losing at Kansas.

"When you looked at our team, who was going to score?" Weber said. "We were fortunate that Marcus was a guy who was able to step up and make some shots." 

Mastering Weber's motion was key to McGruder's success, and once Foster emerged as K-State's go-to scorer after dropping 25 points in the second game of the season against Oral Roberts, he started studying tape of the former K-State star.

"At first, I really didn't like it as much because it just felt like I was just running around," Foster said. "But you can't rush yourself through it. You might have to run, sit in the corner, see what's going on and then come off a screen, curl through. It was a learning process."

Foster is ahead of the freshman curve when it comes to most of the intricacies of the game.

Adam Hunger/Getty Images

"He had some fundamentals, but he's done a really good job of taking coaching and wanting to get better and then working on it," Weber said. "It's the time you put in when the coaches aren't there is what makes you special and that's been a big key for Marcus." 

Weber has also made an adjustment to fit Foster's game. He runs a lot of ball screens for the freshman to get him shots off the dribble. He's scoring 1.09 points per possessions in those situations, according to Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).

Out of freshmen with a minimum of 50 possessions as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, only one player (Santa Clara's Jared Brownridge) has been more efficient. And that's a play that Hedge said he never ran for Foster in high school.

"He was so good with the ball, you didn't have to do anything for him," Hedge said. "When Marcus got the ball, just move out of the way."

Notable Freshman Guards as Pick-and-Roll Ball-Handler
Points Possessions Points Per Possession
Marcus Foster, K-State 73 67 1.09
Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan 28 30 0.993
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse 80 84 0.952
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas 39 45 0.867
Andrew Harrison, Kentucky 44 51 0.863
Nigel Williams-Goss, Washington 45 57 0.789

Synergy

***

Hedge's favorite story about Foster is the one example he has where Foster tried to stand out. 

Midway through his senior year, Foster showed up for a big road game in brand-new neon shoes. Hirschi's colors are North Carolina blue and red.

Hedge didn't love the statement the shoes made, but he didn't say anything to his star player.

With Hirschi down three in the final seconds that night, Hedge designed an out-of-bounds play to get Foster a shot to tie the game.

The Huskies ran it perfectly, Foster got the shot and nailed it at the buzzer, but...his foot was on the line.

"The next day I was kind of tough on Marcus. I said, 'Marcus, if you wouldn't have wore those bright-ass shoes, they wouldn't have saw your foot on the line,' " Hedge said. "Everything he did wrong that day, I'd say, 'You and those pretty-ass shoes.'"

Foster never talked back. He never questioned his coach's motives.

"He'd yell at me because he knew I could handle it and it would snap other guys back to reality," Foster said. "It made me a tougher person."

Hedge said he's seen coaches ruin talented guys because they let them get away with too much, and he wasn't going to let that happen with Foster.

With every accomplishment, Foster was reminded of his sophomore year, when he got a big head and lost offers, or spring 2012, when his stock fell.

"You have to let this humble you," Foster said. "You can't get overexcited about it, let it go to your head."

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

The one time Foster admits that he tried to stand out this year was against Kansas and its star freshman, Andrew Wiggins, the man who topped all the lists that Foster couldn't make.

Foster didn't wear any "pretty-ass shoes" that day, but he wanted to make a statement. Instead, he scored only seven points on 3-of-12 shooting, the worst game of his young career, and the Wildcats lost by 26.

"I tried too hard to force the issue," Foster said. "I really tried to force it hard."

Foster responded with 18 points in his next game against Oklahoma, a school that once recruited Foster and then decided to pass him up.

"I relaxed," he said. "I wasn't going to let that be an issue for me to really try and force it and show they should have recruited me harder."

Foster has moved on. He's focused now on getting the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament and becoming the next Jacob Pullen at K-State, another undersized guard who the town of Manhattan fell in love with over four years.

Those lists don't matter anymore, he says.

Foster is the second-leading scorer among freshmen in the Big 12, trailing only Wiggins, and that says a lot more than any recruiting rankings. 

"I think a lot of schools missed out on him," Hedge said. "It was a blessing for Kansas State, because they got the steal of the year."

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

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