UNION, N.J. — Marcus Foster was one of the great stories of the 2013-2014 college basketball season.
In a season that was dubbed the Year of the Freshmen before Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker even stepped foot on the floor of the United Center in Chicago for the Champions Classic, one of the Class of 2013’s biggest stars was an afterthought entering Kansas State.
Foster was a borderline top 150 recruit throughout his high school career, but after a dismal July live period after his junior season in high school, Foster ended up on the wrong side of the cut line. The 6-foot-2 guard put on a few extra pounds, was forced to play center for his high school team in Wichita Falls, Texas, and watched as everyone other than Kansas State and Creighton yanked those scholarship offers that they had thrown at him just months earlier.
Foster said schools like Cal and Marquette were among those that pulled their offers, but what hurt more was seeing Texas and Baylor decide that he wasn’t good enough to play for them. Those were the in-state programs, and don’t think for a second he’s forgot about that. Foster struggled in his first game against Texas, but he went for a career-high 34 points on 13-for-16 shooting the second time Kansas State played the Longhorns. In two games against Baylor, Foster finished with 29 points and 18 points and 10 assists, respectively.
“I was definitely trying to get them back,” Foster told NBCSports at the Point Guard Skills Academy in Union, N.J., last month. “I definitely remembered that.”
Foster finished his freshman season as one of the nation’s biggest surprises, averaging 15.5 points, 3.2 boards and 2.5 assists while shooting 39.5 percent from three and doing things like this on the regular:
Perhaps what’s more impressive is that Foster became the guy that Kansas State relied on offensively to carry them through an extremely tough Big 12 conference. Think about it like this: Kansas State lost three of their first five games this past season — Northern Colorado at home, Charlotte and to Georgetown by 27 — and still managed to make the NCAA tournament and finish fifth in a Big 12 that sent seven of the 10 teams in the league dancing.
Foster was the catalyst, yet he was barely good enough to get named second-team All-Big 12.
Don’t think, for a second, that he didn’t notice that.
“I feel like I’m still a little bit under the radar,” Foster said, driving home the point that the chip on his shoulder from being overlooked and under-recruited as a high school player is still weighing heavily on him. “Every time I get on the court I’m trying to prove something to somebody, leave somebody knowing me by the end of the night.”
Heading into next season, Foster is looking at a situation where he could end up being the Big 12 Player of the Year. Kansas and Texas will both have quite a bit of talent on their roster, and the likes of West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield are still in school. But between the amount of Kansas State’s offense that Foster is going to be counted on to carry and the improvements that he has made this offseason, he should have the opportunity to put himself squarely in the middle of that conversation.
Foster has made strides this offseason. Not only has he kept himself in excellent shape — part of the reason he fell in the recruiting rankings was that he put on a bunch of weight, and he even lost 10 pounds during his freshman season — while looking even more explosive, Foster has spent this offseason working on becoming a more well-rounded guard.
“My coach always tells me that if I want to go to the next level I’m going to have to be a point because I’m only 6-foot-2,” Foster said. “It’s something that I have to do. Being a point guard is kind of new to me, but I picked up some point guard things.”
“Pick-and-roll stuff, ball-handling stuff, getting the ball up the court [without dribbling], how to split traps, stuff like that.”
I’ll be frank: playing Foster at the point would not be ideal for the Wildcats. Regardless of how much he’s worked this offseason, he’s at his best at the college level when he’s playing as a scoring guard. He’s a lethal three-point shooter when he gets into a rhythm and he’s got the strength and explosiveness to overpower defenders when he’s attacking the rim. Regardless of what position he projects as at the next level, Foster is a terrific scoring guard in college.
But with Will Spradling graduating and a pair of unproven point guards — sophomores Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas — it’s not a bad thing if Foster becomes an improved playmaker, particularly when you consider that Kansas State has brought in a trio of promising transfers (Justin Edwards, Stephen Hurtt and Brandon Bolden) and returns sophomore wing Wesley Iwundu, who is expected to have a big sophomore season.
It’s enough to get Foster’s confidence bubbling.
“I think we can win the Big 12, honestly,” he said. “We have the team, we have the scorers, we have more versatility than we did last year,” and in speaking with him, it’s easy to believe that he believes that statement to be very true.
It’s also easy to believe that the attention that Kansas and Texas will undoubtedly get during the preseason is only going to make that chip on Foster’s shoulder grow bigger.
“Definitely,” he said, which is not a good thing for league foes. “I use that every time I step out on the court.”