A two-team race? KSU begs to differ
Kansas State had heard enough -- over the summer and into the fall -- about the Big 12 being a two-team race between Kansas and Texas.
So guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente and the rest of the Wildcats quietly went to work in the anonymity of Manhattan, Kan., to prove they were just as worthy of being considered a league contender.
"It was always very realistic for us," said Pullen by phone from Manhattan late Monday night after KSU's 71-62 victory over No. 1 Texas. "It was a realistic goal once we walked on campus and understood how hard we had to work in workouts to win the Big 12. Everyone kept saying that Kansas and Texas were the front-runners. We took that personally. But for us to be in the conversation, we had to put ourselves in the position."
But to do that -- to be taken seriously enough not just by the national media and the NCAA tournament selection committee, but by Kansas and Texas -- they had to beat the presumed favorites.
The Wildcats were hardly an unknown by the time they hosted No. 1 and undefeated Texas on Monday night. K-State had climbed to No. 9 after beating teams like Dayton, Washington State, Xavier, UNLV, Alabama and Texas A&M. Their only two blemishes were against Ole Miss in Puerto Rico on Nov. 20 and in their Big 12 opener at Missouri (not sure if anyone else save maybe Kansas or Texas will win in Columbia the rest of the season).
"We understood that we had to win," Pullen said of the national and Big 12 title credibility that was at stake during Monday's game with Texas. "But this wasn't the game I was worried about. I was worried about at Colorado and not looking past them [KSU won in Boulder on Saturday]."
Unlike Big 12 football, which features two six-team divisions, Big 12 basketball teams are all together in the same standings. But the basketball scheduling retains a North-South, football-like split. Kansas State is in the North Division and plays Texas and the teams from the South Division only once, with the site alternating each season. K-State plays the North schools twice, including Missouri and rival Kansas. The Wildcats will face Kansas at home on Jan. 30 and in Lawrence on March 3, while the Jayhawks will hit the road for their one game against Texas on Feb. 8.
There's no guarantee that Kansas State won't slip up against another Big 12 team, with trips to Baylor, Oklahoma and sneaky teams like Iowa State or even Texas Tech or Nebraska still looming. But one thing is certain: The win over Texas has thrust Kansas State into the Big 12 title chase four games into the conference season.
"Do you remember when Bob Huggins came here at his opening press conference, he said, 'Why settle for second when first is available?'" said Kansas State coach Frank Martin by phone Monday night. Martin was Huggins' top assistant for the one season the current West Virginia coach was in Manhattan in 2006-07. "That's what we're shooting for. I'm not saying we're better than the next team.
"You've never heard me say that we couldn't win the Big 12," Martin added. "It's you folks in the media who kept saying it was a two-team league. It's unfortunate, because there isn't a better league in the country."
The Wildcats had a rocking crowd supporting them in what was a Purple Palace (all that was lacking was a Prince appearance circa mid-1980s with a rendition of "Purple Rain"). Kansas State raced out to a 10-point halftime lead, but then withstood a run from Texas after the Longhorns took a brief lead in the second half.
"We defended real well and forced their guards to dribble-drive early in the game," Martin said. "No one is playing better than Damion James in the country right now. He just missed some bunnies."
Texas' 8-0 run to start the second half could have led to a Kansas State meltdown. But Martin didn't want to show any panic so he opted not to call a timeout.
"Early in the year I had to burn a lot of timeouts because we had so many first-year players," Martin said. "But I told them at halftime that they've got to mature and got to grow up. That's what happened on the floor. I was proud of our guys that they regrouped on their own."
Pullen is a star and was an honorable mention All-Big 12 performer last season. He was 8-of-10 at the free throw line, with 12 points, even though he struggled mightily from the field (2-of-15 and 0-of-6 on 3s). Clemente was off, as well, missing six free throws and nearly all his shots (2-of-9). But Connecticut transfer Curtis Kelly slithered his way in for 17 and Jamar Samuels came up huge with 20 points and a career-high 12 rebounds.
Amazingly, Kansas State won this game despite going 1-of-12 on 3s, missing 12 free throws and committing as many turnovers (18) as Texas.
"It was about leadership," Pullen said. "Me and Denis weren't having great games but our bigs were having an amazing game. We didn't lose focus. We didn't take bad shots. We took the shots that were given to us and got our big guys involved."
Still, Martin -- perhaps one of the most intense coaches you'll see on the sideline -- couldn't help himself a few times in huddles. It was just last week at Missouri that Martin lost his temper a bit, slapping at the hand of Chris Merriewether twice in a late-game huddle, a move that he abruptly apologized for after the game.
"We had a timeout late in the [Texas] game and I spoke about what we were going to do, and then we had two breakdowns right out of that," Martin said. "I am who I am and these guys have been playing for me for awhile. We had a chance to win the game and at the end of the game you have to take advantage of the possessions. When I called a timeout and set something up, they didn't listen in the timeout."
But Pullen and the rest of the Wildcats don't mind Martin's mentality of getting in their grill.
"We lost the lead at one point but we showed that we could get the lead back," Pullen said. "[Martin] makes us more intense as a team. I love his intensity. He looks on TV like he's a crazy man, but it gets us going. He's screaming in the huddle, but then we come out screaming too."
Well, the Wildcats have plenty to shout about after beating the Longhorns -- as long as they continue their chase for the league title by beating Oklahoma State at home on Saturday. And then, after a trip to Baylor on Jan. 26, Kansas arrives in Manhattan for the Saturday, Jan. 30 game, which will be an ESPN "College GameDay" experience.
"Maybe now some folks will understand what we have here at Bramlage [Coliseum]," Martin said. "Nobody ever comes here. Now 'GameDay' is coming and maybe people will see what we've had the last four years."
Oh, they'll notice now. The purple passion is hard to ignore when the Wildcats are knocking off No. 1 in their quest to be the top team in the Big 12.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.