When voters across the country decided to put Kansas State near the top of their preseason rankings, they did so because of Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly.
Both seniors started for the Wildcats last season and played enormous roles on a team that nearly reached the Final Four.
Pullen is back as a preseason All-American, and one of the nation's most outspoken players. Kelly is expected to perform as well as any post player in the Big 12. With that kind of star power, what voter could ignore K-State?
Yet, if you ask Pullen what it's going to take for the Wildcats to improve on their breakthrough season of a year ago, he mentions nothing of the team's two returning starters. He thinks a handful of underclassmen and newcomers are going to have to become star players themselves.
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Rodney McGruder, Freddy Asprilla, Martavious Irving, Wally Judge, Will Spradling, Shane Southwell, he's looking at you.
"Those are the guys that are going to get us to the Final Four," Pullen said. "Their play this season is going to be very important. Those are the guys that are going to get us over the top."
Indeed, no matter how well Pullen and Kelly play this season, talented opponents will figure out ways to get around two players.
Pullen will handle most of the point-guard duties this year with Denis Clemente lost to graduation, and that means defenders can double-team Pullen and make him work for points more than they did when he was a shooting guard. But if he can rely on Irving to help out in the ball-handling department, and McGruder and Spradling prove themselves as outside shooters, his job will be much easier.
That will also leave him much fresher on defense, when he is asked to match up against the opposition's top scorer. With defensive stopper Dominique Sutton's decision to transfer, Pullen is the only proven defender in K-State's backcourt.
"The issue is not him," coach Frank Martin said. "The issue is what other guard is going to accept that other responsibility."
Teammates have labeled Irving and Spradling as solid defenders, and McGruder, Russell and Southwell are versatile options on offense.
In the frontcourt, K-State will search for leadership. Kelly set a school record for blocks last season and became a consistent scorer in the NCAA Tournament. Junior Jamar Samuels was explosive at times last year, but disappeared at others. He will need to go from jokester to motivator this season.
Judge appears much-improved as a sophomore, and should fight for a starting spot along with junior-college transfer Asprilla, who Martin says is extremely gifted on offense.
All four are capable of big years, but can they turn their competition for playing time into a positive on the court?
We will find out early. K-State plays Virginia Tech, Gonzaga and either Duke or Marquette before Thanksgiving.
Asking a host of unproven players to deliver quickly against top competition is a tall order. But for a team with aspirations of winning a conference title and making the Final Four, they are necessary.