But coach Lon Kruger was perfectly willing to admit that having seniors Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly suspended by the NCAA helped his Runnin' Rebels ring up a 63-59 victory Tuesday night against the No. 11 Wildcats.
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"Obviously, catching them a little short-handed makes a world of difference, no denying that," said Kruger, a former All-Big Eight point guard and head coach for Kansas State. "Most importantly, we just mentally didn't want to approach it any differently because we knew they were going to be very physical and they're still going to be really good defensively."
Tre'Von Willis scored 16 points and Oscar Bellfield hit a key 3-pointer with 1:10 left to help UNLV seal a victory against the highest-ranked opponent it had faced in the regular season in more than three years.
"Obviously, without Pullen out there, a guy that gets the ball late in games, they've got to go some other direction. That's a big adjustment for any team," Kruger said.
The NCAA, citing receipt of impermissible benefits, told Pullen, a four-year starter and preseason All-America point guard, to sit out three games. Kelly, the Wildcats' only other senior, also was told not to play and Kansas State said the extent of his punishment would be decided later.
The Wildcats (9-3) had trouble adjusting to the absence of their senior leaders and top two scorers and lost their second successive game. As Martin took his seat in the interview room, his media aide announced the coach would take no questions regarding Pullen or Kelly. Then Martin let loose when asked how his players responded to their absence.
"You guys are trying to get under my skin today, aren't you?" he said. "I've been pretty respectful of the media my whole career. I don't want to hear anything else about leadership without anybody other than the guys on the basketball floor. I do not want you to refer any questions again about anybody that was not dressed, in uniform here today."
The statement by the school said the impermissible benefits had to do with clothing at a local store.
Pullen, who had started 82 games in a row, is the only preseason All-American Kansas State has ever had. A three-time team captain, he leads the Wildcats in scoring with 16.5 points per game and has climbed to No. 4 in school history with 1,688 points. The 6-foot-9 Kelly is averaging 10.3 points and four rebounds.
Pullen's absence might have been most acutely felt in the final minutes after Bellfield's 3-pointer gave the Runnin' Rebels (11-2) a 59-54 lead with 1:10 to go.
Martavious Irving's running layup sliced the lead to 59-56, but Willis made two foul shots and Bellfield hit one.
Nick Russell had 12 points for Kansas State. Rodney McGruder, who lost a tooth in the final minutes when he crashed to the floor after making a steal, had 11.
Martin even refused to acknowledge that McGruder lost a tooth. Officials called a timeout and clearly picked it up off the floor as he went to the bench.
"I broke my nose three times. It's part of playing sports. He'll be all right," Martin said.
After Jamar Samuels' 8-footer gave the Wildcats their biggest lead at 40-34, Willis' bucket ignited a 14-2 spurt by the Rebels capped by Willis getting wide open on a give-and-go and a layup by Quintrell Thomas that put UNLV on top 46-42. The Wildcats never led again.
After making a steal with about four minutes left, McGruder crashed face-first onto the court.
"They tried," Martin said. "And until this team finds that character and leadership, we're going to continue to flounder around."
Bellfield's two free throws put UNLV on top 50-42 but McGruder's driving layup sliced the lead to 52-51. Anthony Marshall drove in for a bucket, got fouled by Russell and made the free throw. Samuels' basket with 2:29 to go brought Kansas State within 56-54 before Bellfield's 3-pointer.
"Any bucket's big at that point. It gave us a little separation, put us up five," Kruger said.
Marshall had 11 points for the Rebels. Irving scored 10 for Kansas State, which drew a loud, capacity crowd of 18,442 to Kansas City's Sprint Center.
Asked if this was about as rough a stretch as he has had at Kansas State, Martin seemed to fume.
"You remember my first year, when all you guys thought I was a moron that had no idea what I was doing? I lost my [athletic director] halfway through the year. That was a little bit harder," he said.