MANHATTAN — From the empty seats in the student section to the lackluster play on the court, Kansas State's 89-55 victory over Alcorn State on Monday at Bramlage Coliseum felt like an exhibition.
The fifth-ranked Wildcats (8-1) came in as heavy favorites against the overmatched Braves (0-7), and, outside of a 10-0 run to start the game, played with minimal intensity.
"We weren't playing hard," said junior forward Jamar Samuels, who had 16 points and 14 rebounds. "You could see that."
In a way, they didn't need to. In terms of both record and RPI, Alcorn State is one of the worst teams in college basketball. It is yet to play an opponent to within 18 points, and it would have taken an extraordinary string of events for the Braves to beat the Wildcats.
Never miss a local story.
Still, no one involved with Monday's effort was willing to use that as an excuse for slowing down and easing up midway through the first half and allowing the Braves to cut K-State's lead down to 33-24 with 3 minutes, 56 seconds remaining before halftime.
Coach Frank Martin likes to say that if his players aren't capable of looking forward to every game on the schedule and playing with enthusiasm in them, they won't make it in the real world when they are required to work five days a week.
The Wildcats, who won an emotional road game at Washington State three days earlier, sat through that lecture at halftime and after the final whistle. Senior guard Jacob Pullen, who led all scorers with 24 points, thought they needed to hear it.
"Some nights we just lack energy," Pullen said. "We just come out sometimes and go through the motions. Good teams don't do that."
And until K-State learns to bring its A-game every night, Pullen doesn't think it will reach its full potential like it did a year ago when it won 29 games and advanced to the Elite Eight.
"We've got to get our aggressive demeanor back that we had last year, that chip (on our shoulder)," Pullen said. "We don't have that chip right now. Last year we walked everywhere with that chip on our shoulder. Regardless of whether we were playing the No. 1 team in the country or the No. 500 team in the country, we were going out there to beat them by 30."
K-State pulled away in the second half while producing some impressive stats — it held the Braves to a single assist and forced 19 turnovers, Curtis Kelly scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and freshman guard Will Spradling committed one turnover while playing point guard for 23 minutes in his first start. But Martin said it felt like his players were doing little more than jogging up and down the court, something he wants to change before the Wildcats hit the road to take on Loyola-Chicago at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
"We've been battling it with this team from day one, and we're going to keep battling," Martin said. "It's my job to make us grow in that department. Right now I feel like we're in neutral... I just don't get it."