KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Go ahead. Ask Kansas State basketball coach Frank Martin how he thinks his team will handle the pressure that comes with lofty preseason rankings and being picked to win the Big 12.
That's an easy one. He saw the look on his players’ faces earlier this month when he informed them 10 coaches from across the league voted the Wildcats first in their preseason Big 12 poll. After winning 29 games and advancing to the Elite Eight last year, they yearn for more and are just as ready to begin working toward their goals as he is.
Expectations? Please. If anything, Martin believes starting the season highly ranked will help this group — which returns Big 12 preseason player of the year Jacob Pullen and its top big man Curtis Kelly — stay focused.
There is a question that does pique Martin's interest, though. Is K-State ready to replace the intangibles that former players Denis Clemente, Luis Colon and Chris Merriewether brought to the court last season?
"As we replace that character," Martin said, "and the leadership of those seniors, it will determine how good we can be."
On paper, the trio will not be impossible to replace. Clemente averaged 16.6 points per game and led the team in assists as the point guard last, but he was inconsistent at times. Colon was rarely a threat to score inside and Merriewether averaged less than a point per game.
Even when you throw in the loss of defensive stopper Dominique Sutton, who transferred during the summer, the Wildcats returned enough to debut at No. 3 in the preseason USA Today/ESPN poll.
With Jamar Samuels, former McDonald's high school All-American Wally Judge, touted transfer Freddy Asprilla and a group of young guards ready to take on more playing time, the Wildcats figure to be able to replace the point-production they lost.
But Martin has never thought much about that. If he did, he never would have played Colon or Merriewether.
"When you have good players in place somebody is going to replace the numbers," Martin said. "It's not the numbers you have to replace. If replacing numbers were real difficult then how in the heck were we able to replace (Michael) Beasley and (Bill) Walker three years ago? It's not the numbers. It's the character of the team that you've got to make sure you can replace. That's what good teams do."
Martin has stressed that message to his team throughout the preseason. He has praised Clemente not for his quickness, but for his ability to inspire teammates in tough situations. He has complimented Colon for his coachability. Merriewether was one of the hardest workers on the roster.
"They kept us tough," Kelly said. "They made sure we worked in practice and kept us motivated."
Who will do the same this season?
Pullen, who will play point guard in place of Clemente this year, has already proven himself in that area. But he can't do it alone. Last year, Clemente, Colon and Merriewether had Pullen around to help.
Others will have to grow into that secondary leadership role this time around.
"That's the challenge to our team," Martin said. "Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels, those guys who have been around who are older, how they support Jacob, who is going to be our backbone, decides how we can replace Denis."
Pullen is already urging his teammates to take on the added responsibility. He tells them every day that this is their chance to step up on the floor and in the locker room. No matter how young or inexperienced, they can make an impact.
As nice as high expectations are, and as confident as Pullen is of himself, he knows other things are the key to K-State's success.
"They have to be reliable," Pullen said. "We won't win a Big 12, a NCAA, or any type of game if they don't step up."