Senior Writer

Kansas State travels the long way to expected spot


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Please don't call it a comeback. More like a restart or a jumpstart or starting over. But how Kansas State got to this comfortable place in the NCAA bracket definitely shouldn't be referred to as a comeback.

After early-season suspensions, Kansas State stars Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly try to keep the Wildcats on a roll. (AP)  
After early-season suspensions, Kansas State stars Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly try to keep the Wildcats on a roll. (AP)  
The Big 12 tournament began Wednesday with the Wildcats knowing they are solidly in the NCAA tournament, but not by any conventional method. Two players were suspended this season. Two others left the program. Twenty-two games into the season they were 14-8 after a 24-point loss at Kansas. The patience of their scowling coach, Frank Martin, was tested. The coach himself was eventually questioned. But Martin didn't let underachievement pass. He changed the offense, surprising both his team and the rest of the league.

Asked to put that offensive change in layman's terms, Martin said something about "cuts," "post-ups," "dribble drives" and "pressuring the rim." Put in simpler terms, it allowed guard Jacob Pullen to become what some folks believe is the Big 12 Player of the Year. His stretch run was quite a restart of its own. Pullen, along with teammate Curtis Kelly, was part of the problem in late December when both were suspended for taking discounted merchandise from a local department store.

Times were suddenly tough after Pullen was half of one of the best backcourts in the country last season. When Denis Clemente left, pundits somehow expected Kansas State to be better. The Wildcats were way overvalued with a preseason No. 3 ranking. Conference coaches bought in, too, picking Kansas State to win a league that Kansas had dominated for six seasons. For some reason, experts thought the Wildcats would be better. The experts were wrong. No, it isn't a comeback. Based on those expectations, the season was almost a disappointment.

The Wildcats had to rally to get to this place, winning six in a row and eight of their past nine. Being safely in the bracket wasn't even a discussion point last fall. Now you can hear the sigh of relief all the way from Manhattan, Kan., as one of Kansas City's biggest annual events opens downtown.

Nebraska (going to the Big Ten) and Colorado (to the Pac-12) are making their last appearances in the tournament. Kansas is trying to clinch a No. 1 seed. Baylor, Nebraska and Colorado are trying to play their way into the tournament. But of all the relevant issues going into the last 12-team Big 12 tournament, K-State's are the most compelling.

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"I [couldn't] care less what we were at the beginning of the season," Martin said. "I don't judge our season based on what other people expect us to do. I'm as proud of this team as any team I've been around because of the unity of this team. ... I'm as proud of this basketball team as a teacher and a father [as I've ever been]. It's about watching young kids deal with adversity and move forward. That's what these kids did."

It didn't happen until Martin decided to take one of the biggest gambles of his career. Freddy Asprilla, a transfer from Florida International, quit in mid-January. Wally Judge, a 6-foot-9 former McDonald's All-American, left on Jan. 30. At that point K-State was thin inside and looked in disarray.

Despite last season's Elite Eight run, Martin had to prove himself again. K-State didn't have a single effective post man to throw the ball to, so Martin switched to a more guard-oriented offense.

Pullen averaged 25.5 points per game down the stretch, including 38 against then-No. 1 Kansas on Feb. 14. Freshman Will Spradling became more of a factor. Sophomore swingman Rodney McGruder is a glue guy having started all 31 games. K-State still struggles to score. Kelly, a Connecticut transfer, can be maddeningly inconsistent at forward.

It turns out the loss of Clemente was harder to endure than anyone thought. This team certainly wasn't as mentally strong as last season's. It needed a leader. It found two: Martin's offense and Pullen. No one is expecting an Elite Eight repeat, but at least K-State is in the bracket. It's a restart, a redo, whatever you want to call it. How many teams get those -- in the middle of the season?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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