NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There is a story Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber likes to tell about Xavier Sneed. Not long after Sneed's first college season came to a disappointing end, they had a blunt conversation in his office. Sneed got off to a promising start, making athletic plays, but then hit the metaphorical freshman wall. He was frustrated, and he wasn't sure how to handle the situation.
Then clarity arrived.
"He is one of the most improved players, not only in our league but in the entire country," Weber said of Sneed on Sunday following an 84-79 victory over Vanderbilt. "He is an elite-level athlete. He has really worked at his game hard. I think he understands what it is about now. He came back from the NCAA Tournament last year and told me, 'I understand now. I understand how hard it is. I understand what I have to do.' "
Sneed certainly appears to have figured it all out.
He has backed up those words throughout the entire season, but he took things to a higher level against the Commodores. The sophomore wing scored a career-high 21 points and made two clutch plays to help the Wildcats win their first road game.
"I have really improved my game," Sneed said. "During the offseason I did a lot of work in the gym and watched film on everything I did bad and everything I did good. I just tried to really build on that ... It was just about confidence with me. I got everything going at the right time, and things are going really good for me right now."
Sneed put it all together on Sunday, and the Wildcats benefited with arguably their biggest victory.
Sneed closed out the game with a series of clutch plays that started when he stole a Vanderbilt entry pass with K-State clinging to a an 82-79 lead in the final seconds and then made a pair of free throws on the other end to put things out of reach.
Many of his baskets were either clutch or highlight plays. On top of his late heroics, he also threw down a nifty alley-oop dunk to stop a Vanderbilt run early in the second half. He also had the confidence to make jumpers early in possessions and when he was in transition.
"He is playing with a lot of confidence on both ends of the floor," junior K-State guard Kamau Stokes said after finishing with 20 points and six assists. "I feel like he needs to continue that for us to be good."
With Barry Brown adding 18 points, the Wildcats (7-1) had enough offensive firepower to outlast the Commodores (3-5).
But it wasn't easy. At least not in the second half.
Things couldn't have gone much better for K-State early. The Wildcats came out aggressive and made shots from all over, racing to a 37-21 lead.
Stokes made threes and pull-up jumpers. Brown attacked the basket and Sneed was active in all areas. It was arguably the best basketball K-State has played all season.
But the Wildcats weren't perfect. They got little production from centers Makol Mawien, (Weber singled him out for playing poorly) and Mawdo Sallah. They actually went to freshman Levi Stockard late, and he came through with big free throws. They also were a step slow on defense, relying on Vanderbilt to miss open shots more than forcing bad looks and creating turnovers.
That combination enabled Vanderbilt to make it a game in the second half once its shooters found their stride.
The Commodores pulled even in the second half behind 22 points from Jeff Roberson, but were unable to take the lead. The Wildcats held them off by making 22 of 24 free throws.