SAN JOSE, Calif. — Bruce Weber likes to tell the story of how, at the start of the 2015-16 season, he asked his Kansas State players in the locker room who would to be the team's defensive stopper.
Freshman Barry Brown's hand shot in the air and Weber scoffed. Clearly he was looking for a veteran to take that mantle.
Four years later, not only has Brown proved his coach wrong as a two-time member of the Big 12 all-defense team and the current conference defensive player of the year, but the rest of the Wildcats have followed his lead and developed into a team full of Barry Browns.
"The motto last year was be the best team in the tournament," sophomore guard Cartier Diarra said of the Wildcats' 2018 run to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight. "And we were last year and we plan on doing it this year again."
The Wildcats, 25-8 and seeded No. 4 in the South Regional, begin what they hope is another NCAA run at 1 p.m. Friday against No. 13 seed UC Irvine (30-5) at the SAP Center — an Irvine team also built on defense.
"They're a top five defense in the country, as far as field goal percentage goes," K-State sophomore guard Mike McGuirl said of the Anteaters, who rank third nationally in total rebounds, ninth in rebounding marching (plus 7.3) and fifth in field goal percentage defense. "They do a great job on defense and a great job rebounding. That's something we've got to prepare for and find ways to take advantage of them."
The Anteaters, who claimed both the Big West regular-season and tournament championships, bring a 16-game winning streak into Friday's matchup. And much as with K-State, they pride themselves on getting defensive stops.
"We're both defensive teams for the most part," said UCI junior guard Max Hazzard, the team's leading scorer at 12.5 points per game. "It has the potential to be a low-scoring, defensive game, but we don't want to get too caught up in what they do.
"We just want to play our game, because it's been working for us."
UCI boasts the three-time Big West defensive player of the year in 6-foot-10 senior forward Jonathan Galloway, who averages 7.0 points and a team-best 8.0 rebounds a game. But while UCI ranks in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 63.3 points per game, K-State is No. 5 at 59.2.
"They are an excellent basketball team," UCI coach Russell Turner said of the Wildcats. "And specifically, they're excellent as a defensive basketball team, which is often the most frustrating thing to play against, is a team that can shut you down.
"We're that team in the Big West. Kansas State is that team in the Big 12, though, and that's a different deal."
Defense, a staple for K-State all season, has taken on even greater importance with the injury to all-Big 12 senior forward Dean Wade, who is expected to miss the game and quite possibly is done for the year. Wade re-injured his foot in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma and hasn't played since that game.
"You've got to do things a little different," Brown said of playing without Wade. "You've got to make a (few) more passes, maybe you shoot the ball a little bit more, play a little harder on defense.
"Dean, he affects the game in so many different ways when he's out there and picks up for everyone's mistakes, including mine, so when he's not out there, you've got to do a little bit more."
That's what the Wildcats did last year, with victories over Creighton, UMBC and Kentucky, before finally falling to Loyola Chicago in the Elite Eight.
"We just locked in," Diarra said. "We really bonded together after the Dean injury and not being able to play, and it was like, 'Let's do something special that hasn't been done in a minute here at K-State,' and I felt like that was enough fuel for us to make a nice little run."
Weber credits his mentor, former Purdue coach Gene Keady, with developing his own defense-first philosophy.
"Defense was always our foundation," he said of his 19 years as Keady's assistant, first at Western Kentucky (1979-80) and then at Purdue (1980-98). "Our principles are the same, our foundation is the same."
Brown, who helped set the bar defensively four years ago for the current Wildcats and also leads the team in scoring with 14.9 points a game, wasn't sure if his teammates brought their commitment to defense with them to K-State or if it evolved over time.
"Different backgrounds, people from different areas, so I don't really know about their mindset when they come in here," Brown said. "(But) you're definitely going to leave defensive-minded."