MANHATTAN — Jacob Pullen leans back in a chair and prepares himself for the questions.
Everyone in the room wants to talk about expectations, and he knows it. How could he not? He often wonders about them himself.
During his first three seasons at Kansas State, the Wildcats fought for respect — regionally and nationally. They were in and out of the national polls and took alternating trips to the NCAA Tournament and NIT. They were often considered underdogs, and there was always someone out there to prove wrong.
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Being picked to win the Big 12 this season and debuting at No. 3 in the national polls changed all that. This year, K-State is trying to prove people right.
Even Pullen, a preseason All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year, finds that strange.
"It's different," Pullen said. "Every season we've approached so far the last three years has been as the underdog. It's always been like, 'OK, we know who we want to beat. We can't wait to see them and we can't wait till we get our hands on them.' That's how we looked at every season. But now these top teams are looking at us that way."
Transitioning from hunter to hunted can be difficult. Teams now view a victory over K-State as a win that could make their season. That means the Cats will encounter larger and louder road crowds and more motivated opponents.
"We have to put it in perspective," sophomore guard Nick Russell said. "We are now the hunted. We are No. 3 and there are all kinds of teams hunting us. But there are two teams still in front of us, and we are hunting them.... So we've got to work for that."
When K-State defeated then-No. 1 Texas in front of a frenzied crowd last season, the Wildcats were angry and out to make a statement. When they played less-hyped games against inferior opponents, they pumped themselves up by dancing their way onto the floor and trying to up the winning margin.
Expectations shouldn't change that, should they?
"We do not need somebody on the outside saying that we're good to make us think that we are good," coach Frank Martin said. "We communicate in that locker room and there are certain goals and visions that we have created that we continue to try to work and try to achieve."
Fair enough. But it may not be that easy. Remember, before K-State went on its Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament last year, it lost 3 of 5 games and suffered through a late-season lull that easily could have been blamed on expectations.
In the days leading up to the slump, the Wildcats climbed into the top 5 and became a real player in the race for a Big 12 title. Pullen and Jamar Samuels said they began comparing games to business trips.
It was the wrong approach. They didn't handle success well, and it took a few defeats to re-focus.
Several months later, they say things will be different this time around.
"We're still going to play with that chip on the shoulder," Pullen said. "We're still going to be diving on the floor. We're not going to turn into prima donnas because we were picked No. 1. That stuff doesn't go on in our locker room. We don't let the accolades get to us. We don't sit around and celebrate that stuff."
Big early season games loom against Virginia Tech, Gonzaga and maybe even defending national champion Duke in the finals of the CBE Classic.
If K-State has nothing to prove in those games, that's news to Pullen.
"We start our season against some real good teams," he said. "We will need to be ready."
Martin has kept his team motivated since the start of practices. The day he informed his team that it had been picked to win the Big 12 by the league's coaches, he broke the news in a locker room meeting and left his players with a message.
"It's time to go to work," he said.
Sophomore guard Rodney McGruder recalls a similar statement being made last season, when Martin had no positive news to report. Expectations may have changed on the outside, but on the inside K-State is the same hunter it always was.
"It is the same as last year," McGruder said. "Even though we started off last year being unranked and unknown, we have the same mindset. We know that we have to work hard and the coaches are pushing us to do that. Coach Martin does not stress the fact that we are ranked in the top 5 in the country. That really doesn't matter to us."