MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — There was no reason to suspect that Marcus Foster would be the driving force behind Kansas State’s surprising success.
Heck, it even caught him by surprise.
Foster was lightly recruited out of high school, and buried behind more high-profile recruits on his AAU team. He committed to the Wildcats on his only official visit, glad to finally see some Division I attention, and showed up last summer wondering how he would fit in.
One day, he was getting a lift from Shane Southwell and the senior forward asked the freshman guard what his goals were for the season. Foster replied, “I’d like to average six points, maybe a couple rebounds and a couple assists. Have a solid freshman season.”
Foster remembers Southwell bringing the car to a screeching halt.
“He looked at me funny,” Foster said, “and was like, you can average 15 points. You have that good of a year. And that opened my eyes, that he had so much trust in me.”
Southwell proved to be prophetic, too.
After scoring 34 points in an upset of then-No. 15 Texas last weekend, and adding 20 in another upset of seventh-ranked Kansas on Monday night, Foster is scoring — wait for it — exactly 15 points per game, the biggest reason why the Wildcats (17-7, 7-4) are in the Big 12 race.
In fact, he’s had more than 20 points in four of his past five games, putting him into contention for conference freshman of the year honors with guys such as Jayhawks forward Andrew Wiggins and center Joel Embiid, a pair of players expected to be NBA lottery picks.
“My whole life, people didn’t think I was good enough to compete with the best guys in the country,” Foster told The Associated Press. “And to be honest, I’m in disbelief. I didn’t think I’d be making an impact this early.”
In an age of 24-7 recruiting, AAU showcases and social media, it’s rare that a top-flight talent goes largely undetected. Yet in Foster’s case, that’s precisely what happened.
He was a big-time scorer at Hirschi High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, but he didn’t play in a big-time city league or against the best competition.
And he found that few coaches were willing to make the trek north from Dallas or south from Oklahoma City to see him play.
Foster even had trouble catching onto an AAU program, and when he finally joined the Dallas Mustangs, he found himself spending entire games sitting on the bench.
“I’d fly to Dallas to see him,” Wildcats coach Bruce Weber said with a chuckle, “and the coach doesn’t even put him in. But we were happy in a way, because we knew he was good.”
Weber had just taken the Kansas State job in April 2012 when he invited his first group of recruits onto campus. Foster was among them. And somehow, amid all the other players on the floor, he stood out enough that Weber and his staff began to call him on a regular basis.
Even when Foster struggled in AAU ball during his senior year of high school, Kansas State stuck by him. That meant the world to Foster, so much so that he committed to the Wildcats on his first official visit. He never wavered in his decision, either.
The only question in Weber’s mind was how quickly Foster would be able to help.
“He started practice and we were like, ‘God, he’s good,’” Weber said. “And then we scrimmaged and we’re like, ‘Wow, he’s really good,’” And then we got to games, and he just keeps proving himself. He’s actually stepped up his game, and usually you get to this time of year, guys dog it a little bit, but he’s even playing better in practice than he did early in the year.”
He certainly made a believer out of the Jayhawks on Monday night.
After scoring just seven points when the teams met in January, Foster unloaded for a game-high 20 in the return matchup. He even made the two free throws in overtime to clinch the victory.
“Much more aggressive,” Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe said. “You could tell he was looking for his shot, trying to get into the lane and trying to find his teammates.”
Trying to do whatever he could to help the Wildcats win.
Now, a team that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode after sharing the Big 12 title a year ago is just two games back of the Jayhawks in the league race, and Foster is no longer the unknown prospect trying to make a name for himself in major college basketball.
“I think he’s happy where he is,” Weber said, “but at the same time, he thinks he’s pretty good, and he wants to show it. I think he’s driven to show everybody just how good he is.”