Frank Erwin, I don’t know who you are. But Kansas State owns you.
Three times in a row, now, the Wildcats have come into the building that carries your name and beaten Texas. It happened again Texas' Tristan Thompson scores over Curtis Kelly of Kansas State. Monday night as the red-hot Cats knocked off the Longhorns, 75-70.
It’s been an amazingly confusing season for Kansas State, but now is the time for everybody to stop scratching their heads and accept the fact that whatever Frank Martin does, it seems to come out OK in the wash.
Player defections and suspensions from earlier in the season are now distant memories as the Wildcats look to have the kind of chemistry that could take them deep into the NCAA Tournament. Nobody would have thought such a thing three weeks ago, but Martin’s team has found whatever it was it was looking for.
When Freddy Asprilla and Wally Judge left Kansas State this season, it appeared to me that the Wildcats would be left too thin in the front-court to really mount much of a challenge to other Big 12 teams. A 1-4 conference start looked like it could spiral to something really bad. But K-State is 8-2 in the Big 12 since, including impressive home wins over Kansas and Missouri and now a road win at Texas, where the Longhorns had not lost in conference play.
For sure, Texas isn’t the Texas of earlier in the season. That team has really hit the skids. Four of its best players – J’Covan Brown, Cory Joseph, Jordan Hamilton and Gary Johnson – were a combined 11 of 48 from the floor against Kansas State. Just a couple of weeks ago people were talking about Texas winning a national championship. They should have known better; this isn’t the first time the Longhorns have limped down the stretch looking nothing like they did earlier in a season.
But Monday night’s game was mostly about the continued resilience and toughness being displayed by Kansas State. When senior guard Jacob Pullen went down with what looked like a serious injury to his right wrist in the final seven minutes or so, it was a scary moment for K-State fans. But Pullen was back out there quickly and made big plays down the stretch. No player in America means more to his team right now, and Pullen is playing like the All-American so many expected him to be.
Fellow senior Curtis Kelly has found his rhythm after stumbling around early, thanks to a suspension and what looked to be a perpetual place in Martin’s doghouse. Kelly deserves a lot of credit for persevering and he played large again Monday with 15 points and eight rebounds.
It’s not junior forward Jamar Samuels who is helping Kelly out up front, but 7-foot sophomore Jordan Henriquez-Roberts. I gotta say, I didn’t see him doing much this season, but he has been a real surprise. His eight points on 4-of-5 shooting and eight rebounds were huge against Texas.
Sophomore guard Rodney McGruder has found consistency and confidence, two things he was missing during Kansas State’s struggles. He is so smooth when he’s in the zone and he was in the thick of it against Texas, making 8 of 14 shots.
After getting down early, the Wildcats surged. And this was a huge game for Texas, which is trying – not very successfully – to fend off Kansas in the race for the Big 12 regular-season championship. The Longhorns, with recent losses to Nebraska and Colorado on the road, now trail KU by a game.
K-State played an outstanding second half, never allowing the crowd to really make a difference and making big plays down the stretch. It was another impressive performance by the Wildcats, one of many of late.
I thought Martin might be losing his team in January. I wondered whether his verbose style was wearing on his players.
I continue to learn more and more about Martin. Or I learn nothing at all, I’m not sure. I’ve learned, undoubtedly, to give him the benefit of the doubt. His team has turned its season around in the past three weeks and there’s not a team in America that wants to play K-State in the NCAA Tournament.
Especially not in Frank Irwin’s building, which really belongs to Kansas State.