MANHATTAN — The Kansas State basketball team can stop worrying about trying to earn the nation's respect.
In the past week, the Wildcats have climbed into the national rankings at No. 17; from ESPN to CBS and Yahoo!, seemingly every major sports media Web site has written a positive article about K-State and coach Frank Martin.
"My Blackberry has never been busier than it has been over the past 48 hours," Martin said. "It's incredible how smart you become when you win games."
This is new territory for the Wildcats. All season they have driven themselves with the goal of proving the doubters wrong and performing well as underdogs.
Players openly shared their cravings for a spot in the top 25 before playing UNLV, and responded by pounding the Rebels 95-80. Leading up to a home game against Xavier, players said their main incentive was avenging a previous loss to the Musketeers. Again, they responded with a double-digit win.
But the Wildcats can't play that card anymore. Now that they have the nation's attention, they say they want to keep it.
"I've been through it before when we were in and out of the rankings freshman year," junior guard Jacob Pullen said. "We'd win big and lose big and win big. We know how that goes. I'd like to just stay where we are and keep getting better."
That mission starts at tonight against Alabama in a neutral-court game in Mobile, Ala.
K-State heads into the game as the favorite, and Pullen believes that will be an interesting feeling.
"It makes everyone have a target on us," Pullen said. "Even the teams we play that aren't supposed to be in the game with us, they still want to play their best. That's like their championship game. They get a chance to beat a ranked team. Last year we were the team that was putting the target on everyone who was ranked.
"We really wanted to beat them. This year we get the chance to know how it feels, you know, to really see teams give us their best shots because a win against us is a marquee win on somebody's resume."
Martin has spoken to his players about how to handle that mindset. He spent an entire day in Bristol, Conn., earlier this week conducting on-site interviews with ESPN and informed his team good press was coming its way as soon as he returned home.
No matter, he told them. To excel in that role, he said his team will need to block out all the added media attention and continue playing the way it has all season.
"When we didn't win the games that maybe we were supposed to win last year," Martin said, "and people turned their back on them, it made them understand that it's about the guys who walk on that court everyday wearing our uniform.
"Now the shoe is on the other foot. It's a different set of emotions, but it's the same exact thing. It's about the guys who walk out on that floor and understand how hard it's been to get whatever success we've achieved to this point."
Sophomore forward Jamar Samuels said that advice will be easy to follow. He said he didn't even know what K-State's national ranking was until a reporter asked him about it.
"We're just not letting people outside who said we weren't going to be anything after (Michael Beasley) left just come in and say 'yeah, yeah, we're with you guys, rah rah' and all that stuff," Samuels said. "We're just together as a team."
Added junior Dominique Sutton: "We're just gonna go out and show the world that K-State is here. We're going to continue to win games, stay level-headed and show them that the rankings don't mean nothing."