MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — The critics will say Kansas State only reached the Sweet 16 because UMBC did the dirty work, knocking off top-seeded Virginia in the upset of the NCAA Tournament.

Sums up the way the Wildcats and coach Bruce Weber are often disrespected.

The Wildcats returned just about every key player from a team that won 21 games and reached the NCAA Tournament last season, winning a first-four game against Wake Forest. Yet when the preseason poll was released in October, the Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12.

Many thought they would collapse so completely that Weber would be fired.

But they exceeded almost all expectations — at least, those outside Manhattan — by finishing fourth in arguably the toughest conference in the country, despite playing much of the season without injured guard Kamau Stokes. Then they locked up their NCAA Tournament bid by beating TCU in the Big 12 Tournament without All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade, who remains sidelined by a foot injury.

Now, the No. 9 seed Wildcats (24-11) are headed to the South Region semifinals against No. 5 seed Kentucky, and the coach on the hot seat is suddenly in charge of a team that is... quite hot.

"I mean, hat's off to coach, man. Hat's off to our whole coaching staff and all the players, all the hard work we put in," Kansas State guard Barry Brown Jr. said. "Been a long time coming, and it's surreal to be in a position that we are, but I mean, we put the work in. We deserve it. We're going to show what we can do."

Weber was a deeply unpopular choice when Frank Martin left for South Carolina before the 2012-13 season, and winning a share of the Big 12 title that season didn't help much. And what little support he enjoyed began to recede when the Wildcats missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments a couple years later, and Weber was forced to purge a roster filled with malcontents.

Among those that left was Marcus Foster, who ended up at Creighton and faced Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Foster went on to have an exceptional career with the Bluejays, and said last week that he was thankful for the lessons he learned in Manhattan.

Weber earned some support back with a trip to the NCAA Tournament last year, and new athletic director Gene Taylor gave him a vote of confidence with a contract extension. But many fans were still wary about a coach who was contemplating a job with College of Charleston when Kansas State called.

His players, on the other hand, have had his back all year.

"It's been a long time since we've been here, and first time under coach Weber here," said Xavier Sneed, a four-star recruit who chose the Wildcats over plenty of other high-major offers.

Indeed, the Sweet 16 trip is the first for Kansas State since 2010, when Martin and Jacob Pullen led the second-seeded Wildcats to the Elite Eight before falling to Butler.

It's only the second appearance for the once-proud program in the last three decades.

"Can't say enough about our guys," Weber said after the Wildcats' second-round win over UMBC, an ugly 50-43 victory in Charlotte. "I just, again, go back to their character, their courage and the persistence, and they bought in. They care about each other."

That may be the biggest reason that Kansas State has been successful this season.

That team a few years ago, when a handful of players were either booted from the program or left of their own choosing, was dysfunctional from top to bottom. The current team was largely recruited at the same time, and has formed a granite-solid bond over the past few years.

The bond was visible when Wade, available only in an emergency, was the first off the bench to cheer his teammates over the weekend. And now, with more time to rest his ailing foot, Wade said there is a "98 percent" certain he'll be on the floor against Kentucky on Thursday night.

Meanwhile, Weber is relishing the ride his team has taken to Atlanta.

"I threw this at them way back in April last spring. I said, 'Guys, we won a game. The next step is to get to the Sweet 16,'" Weber said. "So between the coaches, the players, it's just a nice reward, and for our fans, too. It's great."

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