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Kobe Webster continues to have big moments outside the Indiana prep limelight

The former multi-time Indiana state champion wants to bring Western Illinois to the big stage, a place he’s been before.

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NCAA Basketball: Western Illinois at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before Kobe Webster had logged a single college minute he’d won multiple championships, played with future NBA lottery picks and NCAA All-Americans and dealt with gyms full of 10,000-plus people. That was high school basketball in Indiana.

“Like everyone says, it’s just different,” he said.

A picture ran in the Indianapolis Star in 2014 that, knowingly or not, was stuffed with symbolism. Park Tudor, a high school on the Northeast side of Indianapolis, had just won its third Indiana Class 2A state championship in four years. It was propelled by a then-state finals record 38 points from forward Trevon Bluiett, a senior who has bound for Xavier after a high stakes recruitment that involved several blue bloods.

As Bluiett stood on the floor following the win, mouth open in joy, an almost laughably young-looking Webster looked up at him. That moment was captured by the Indianapolis Star, and may well have captured the passing of the torch for a surging prep program. At the time, Webster was a little-used freshman guard who would step into a bigger role as Bluiett left for Xavier.

Back then, in the Holy Grail that is high school basketball in Indiana, Park Tudor was a Colossus.

Yogi Ferrell put the school on the map in the early 2010’s, leading the program to its first and second state championships in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Bluiett then helped bring the hardware back to the Northeast side in 2014, and it would fall to Webster and several other underclassmen — notably, future third overall NBA draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. — to continue the momentum in the Hoosier state hotbed.

“We have some of the biggest gyms in terms of high school gyms in the world so it was always great to be in that atmosphere, in that environment,” Webster said. “When you travel two hours away to Newcastle, to Connersville, to some of the big gyms, you feel like you’re almost surrounded by the opponent’s team.”

It that frenzy, then-No. 1 ranked Park Tudor got knocked out by Southport in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Marion County Tournament. That still stands out to Webster, but so does the Panthers cutting down the nets for a fourth championship in five years in front of nearly 10,000 fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse at the end of the year. As a sophomore point guard on that title team, Webster played 31 minutes in the championship game, averaged 9.3 points and 2.3 assists on the season and etched his name in Indiana prep basketball lore.

But his career, of course, didn’t end there.

Outside of the searing Indiana high school limelight and dizzying heights Park Tudor reached, he’s still writing the next chapter of his basketball career. And it’s taken him to some places far different than the at-times raucous, pressure-packed whirlwind that was his high school experience.

The Indiana edge

There was no smothering atmosphere last Saturday night.

Webster — now a junior point guard at Western Illinois — led the Leathernecks into a non-conference game at Kansas City. A modest crowd in the 1,600-seat Swinney Center meant that the defenses Webster called out early in the game reached the gym’s top rows.

But that didn’t mean the game meant any less.

Amid a difficult start to the season, WIU was coming off a quality win at Ball State, one in which Webster had scored a team-high 18 points. The junior point guard struggled to build on that momentum early. He didn’t take a shot until nearly seven minutes into the game, and was largely held in check offensively by the Roos’ physical guards. Sophomore Ben Pyle led a furious WIU charge to flip into an 18-point deficit into a second-half lead.

Despite the rough shooting night, it was Webster with the ball in his hands as WIU trailed in the final moments. He didn’t let the team down, slicing into the lane and hitting a step-back, go-ahead jumper with 13 seconds left. And while the Roos would ultimately win the game on a pair of late free throws, Webster has owned moments like that since arriving in Macomb.

Billy Wright knew what he had in Webster from the jump.

“When to shoot it, when to drive it, when to pass it — he had that from day one, and I think that’s something that’s hard to teach at the point guard position,” the sixth-year WIU head coach said when asked what stood out most when he recruited Webster.

Wright was, well, right.

Webster stepped right in as the Leathernecks’ point guard as a freshman in 2017, and led the team in scoring (15.3 PPG), assists (3.5 APG) and minutes played (33.4 MPG). It was more of the same as a sophomore, as Webster yet again led the team in all three stats and landed on the All-Summit second team. And in the process, he’s already become one of WIU’s most decorated players ever; Webster is on pace to finish in the top-five in program history in career points and assists.

“He can score, he can really score at all three levels,” Kansas City coach Billy Donlon said after his team faced Webster last Saturday. “He can make a three, he can make a mid-range, he’s got that little fadeaway where he can bump you off, and then he can get to the rim.”

NCAA Basketball: Western Illinois at Iowa
Billy Wright could relate to Kobe Webster.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For a player that quit football in fifth grade to focus solely on basketball, Webster said it was growing up in Indiana that gave him an edge to transition so smoothly to the college game.

And that’s something Wright understands.

As a prep point guard, he led Richmond High School to a state championship in 1992, back when Indiana high school basketball didn’t have classes and all teams were in one big pot. He doesn’t let Webster — who won his two titles in the spread-out class system — forget that.

“I played in the era of single class, which is what Hoosiers is based on,” Wright said. “I joke with him all the time and tell him we need to put an asterisk next to his championships. I sum it up [that] if you grew up in Indiana, you learn the US Constitution, you learn the Indiana state law and you dissect the movie Hoosiers. Not necessarily in that order.”

Returning to the bright lights

Last March, Webster was back in the pressure cooker.

WIU had crawled into the Summit League’s eight-team tournament, needing a Denver loss on the final day of the season to not be the lone team left out. They drew top-seeded South Dakota State and its points machine Mike Daum in the opener, a team had just handed the them a 20-point loss the game before.

And being in Sioux Falls, it was far from a neutral environment. Yet in a total team effort, led by 17 points from Webster, the Leathernecks pulled a massive upset and kept Daum from appearing in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. While one of the game’s greatest all-time scorers not being on its biggest stage was the national story, WIU had gotten itself a statement win with Webster at the heart of it.

“He stepped up and met the challenge, made the big plays for himself and his teammates and led us to a statement victory in our program’s history,” Wright said. “So that stands out because it was tournament time, bright lights, big game, 10,000 fans.”

It’s a moment that stands out to Webster too as he looks back on his college career to this point.

“To come back after that game and look at the game plan and hone in on everything and get back out there a week later and make history, that was definitely the best moment I’ve had here [so far],” he said.

Webster nearly shot the Leathernecks into the tournament title game, but they fell to eventual champion North Dakota State in a three-point game. Still, he’s working toward more of those moments for a program that has yet to appear in the NCAA Tournament.

Webster is quick to point out the star walk of players he suited up with in high school. There was his original leader in Bluiett, who’s currently in the G-League, and the one that stands out most in Jackson Jr., a player ticketed to stardom in Memphis. There was also Bryce Moore, who played three seasons at Western Michigan and is currently a part of a ranked Xavier team, and Dwayne Gibson, who had a tremendous career at Division II Nova Southeastern.

But that isn’t to to say there isn’t talent flanking Webster in the present.

Pyle, a former Mr. Kansas Basketball, is bursting with offensive potential, can handle the ball at 6’7’’ and is off to a hot start (12.7 PPG, 44.2 3P%). Sophomore wing Zion Young — who has his own storied high school history coming from Chicago powerhouse Simeon — has been dynamic early in the season (15.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 40.7 3P%), and could be ticketed for an all-league team.

“They are a very good offensive team, and if they see their balls go in they gain confidence,” Donlon said after his Roos held off an WIU scoring surge last Saturday.

The Leathernecks do, however, have an uphill climb. Picked seventh in the Summit League preseason coaches’ poll, they’ve gotten off to a 2-6 start and struggled defensively over the season’s first few weeks, particularly to keep teams quiet from three.

But their offense has been dangerous and they’ve flashed potential, like the win at Ball State — then a top-100 KenPom team — and fact that four of their losses have come by five points or fewer. Could that lead to the makings of a team that can yet again cause problems in Sioux Falls?

“The guys understand what it takes, we’ve got guys that have been in the program for a few years now,” Wright said. “I’m really looking forward to our guys taking that next step.”

If that next step comes, it’ll no doubt be in large part because of Webster, who had a flurry of a basketball life before he turned 18. Counterintuitively, the gyms and crowds may not be as large and the lights not always as bright now, but the moments can be just as big as he continues on in the next chapter of an already-storied career.