Overlooked no more
Proviso East alum Pullen leading Kansas State in Sweet 16
Kansas State junior Jacob Pullen had too many colleges pass on him to hold a grudge against any specific one.
Coming out of Proviso East High School in Maywood, Pullen wasn't considered by most high-major programs. Everyone recognized that Pullen had ability -- his final high school season nearly matched that of fellow Chicago-area seniors Demetri McCamey, Derrick Rose and Evan Turner -- but his height (6-foot) scared most coaches away. Pullen's game was mostly about scoring, and coaches viewed him as an undersized shooting guard rather than a point guard.
"A lot of people overlooked me," said Pullen as he prepared for Thursday's NCAA tournament game against Xavier. "It wasn't a big deal to me."
It wasn't because there was one coach who really wanted him.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who was then at Kansas State, saw something more in Pullen. Huggins didn't classify Pullen by a position, but viewed him as someone who could be an offensive threat.
"He brings great ability and great personality to the floor," said Huggins when Pullen signed with Kansas State in 2006. "He comes from a great high school program that produced Doc Rivers, Dee Brown, Shannon Brown and Michael Finley. Jacob certainly has the potential to be a player of that caliber at this level."
Four years later, Huggins may be coaching elsewhere, but that doesn't make him any less right about Pullen.
Pullen has become of the nation's premier guards, and he has done so by not changing much. His individual skills have improved, but the way he dominated at Proviso East is the way he still does for Kansas State. He's still 6-foot. He still operates best with the ball in his hands. He still can score in a variety of ways even though his opponents are bigger. His greatest motivation is still to win.
"I want to win," Pullen said. "I wanted to win the Big 12 conference. I want to win a national championship. I want to win. That's pretty much my goal."
With Pullen leading the way, Kansas State has just done that. Most of the Wildcats' 28 wins have come thanks to Pullen, as he's averaged 19.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 steals.
He has had his share of special nights, too. He put up 28 points and seven 3-pointers to beat UNLV in December. A game later, he scored 30 at Alabama. He scored 25 points, knocked down six 3-pointers and sank the game-winning free throws to win at Baylor in January. He scored 26 points in another win over Baylor during the Big 12 tournament.
Most recently, he scored 34 points and hit seven 3-pointers to beat BYU in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
While Pullen has had success in Manhattan, Kan., his cousin McCamey has kept tabs on him from Champaign, Ill. McCamey and Pullen don't have the opportunity to talk or see each other as much as they used to growing up, but both are sure to watch the others' games when they have the chance.
McCamey believes he recognizes why Pullen has excelled so much in college.
"His game was a little too advanced, if you want to call it [that], for high school because people couldn't catch his passes and because he was trying to run a team and be a true point," McCamey said. "Now, he's out there scoring, playing up and down and taking quick shots and stuff like that. That was a perfect system for him.
"He just kept his poise and learned the game. He can break the game down so easily now. Everything has slowed up for me, him and Evan [Turner], and we're just picking it apart now."
City/Suburban Hoop Report's Joe Henricksen, an Illinois-based recruiting analyst, was always high on Pullen, but he, too, never saw this coming.
"I always thought Pullen would be able to score at just about any level he played at in college, but I always envisioned him as more of an undersized 2-guard playing the point guard position," Henricksen said. "But he's obviously better and more productive than I thought he would be. I would have never dreamed he would be mentioned for All-American teams as a junior in college while playing for one of the top teams in the country. His development has been impressive.
"Part of that is the confidence and toughness he plays with. He's become a more well-rounded player as well. He's still a natural scorer, but he's not just a scorer. He's developed into a very good defensive player."
Pullen may have surprised many by what he's accomplished, but he still thinks of himself and Kansas State as underdogs heading into the final rounds of the NCAA tournament.
"A lot of people still don't think we can win it," Pullen said.
If anyone's learned anything about Pullen over the years, it's not to count him out.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.