AUSTIN, Texas — Kansas State makes its return to college basketball's big stage tonight. This time for all the right reasons.
After struggling through the early portions of the season, the Wildcats are no longer considered one of the nation's most disappointing teams. They are also no longer a team fighting for its postseason life.
Now that they have won six of their past seven games with Jacob Pullen emerging as a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, they are beginning to look like one of the nation's most dangerous teams.
At the least, K-State should be every bit as much an interesting TV draw as third-ranked Texas come 8 p.m. today on "Big Monday."
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"It's a great opportunity," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "A great opportunity to go play the team that is in first place in our league. It's a great opportunity to go in there and compete and put your head down and stay focused on what your team has to do and go take a chance to take that next step as a basketball team."
While the Longhorns are tied with Kansas atop the conference standings, they will be out to try and steady themselves after losing two of their past three games. K-State is attempting to make its case for a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament. A win over the Longhorns would certainly prove it is capable of beating any opponent, anywhere.
"What goes through my mind is the fact that we did beat Kansas," said senior forward Curtis Kelly, thinking back to an 84-68 victory over the Jayhawks two weeks ago. "Texas is a top three team now, too. If we beat both of those teams, that's something that no team in the country probably has done, which is an amazing accomplishment that will help us in the NCAA Tournament."
Few outside the Wildcats' locker room could have envisioned K-State strutting into Austin with so much on the line. But inside the locker room, everyone believed a late-season turnaround was possible.
When most saw the mid-season departures of struggling forwards Wally Judge and Freddy Asprilla as a negative, the Wildcats emerged more united than they had been since advancing to the Elite Eight last year.
Martin and his coaching staff stopped focusing the majority of their efforts on the team's underachieving players and began working more closely with the ones willing to improve on a regular basis.
They decided to switch to a smaller lineup and opened up their offense. Pullen has responded by taking charge of the team like most experts expected him to at the beginning of the year, when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"It's really made our locker room stronger than it's ever been," Pullen said. "Every day when we walk into that locker room knowing that it's just us, we go out and we fight for each other."
On the court, that has translated into more passes, better shots and everyone on the roster lining up to draw charges.
"When you're team is playing like that," Pullen said, "at the end of the day you're going to make good decisions and you're going to have good games, because we're all about each other."
The transition hasn't been easy. K-State has crumbled under the weight of high expectations, surged back to relevance when it was considered an underdog and their play is beginning to bring some of those early expectations back.
That could affect some teams, but after all the Wildcats have been through they could care less about what the outside world thinks of them. Their season has been built around playing their best basketball in March. If February has been any indication, they are heading toward their goal.
"They don't pass our trophies in November and December," Martin said. "You don't get the opportunity to play for a championship at that time of year. It's about preparing your team for March. It's about challenging your team to get better.
"The season is not two weeks long. The season is not one loss long. The season is ... a long journey. To get through a season, if you want to celebrate when you play well then you're going to fail. If you're going to dwell on failure when you don't play well then you're not going to celebrate. You have to understand there is a happy medium."
It took K-State a little longer than originally planned to find the right set of emotions and mindset, but it may have figured everything out at the right time.
"We went from close to the bottom to now," Kelly said. "We're climbing to the top. I just want to keep going. I want to keep getting these (wins). I want to keep playing hard and hopefully the outcome is successful."