KANSAS CITY, Mo. —When Kansas State looked lost and college basketball experts labeled the Wildcats one of the nation's most disappointing teams, Jacob Pullen wouldn't let go.
Before Big 12 play began, the senior guard said the road to a regular-season league championship went through Bramlage Coliseum. In the midst of losing 5 of 7 conference games, he insisted the Wildcats were still in the mix for a league title. Not until Kansas mathematically eliminated them did he stop talking about the possibility of hoisting a Big 12 trophy.
Dreams die hard, and that was his.
He has yearned for a championship ring since the day he arrived at K-State, and was part of a third-place team that got off to a hot Big 12 start as a freshman. That's one of the main reasons he didn't test the NBA waters last summer. He wanted to chase his dream one final time.
The pursuit of a regular-season title may be over, with the Wildcats finishing fourth at 10-6, but an equally important championship quest begins Thursday at the Big 12 Tournament.
"That's what we're focused on now," Pullen said. "Last time I checked, they give you a ring for that, too."
Across the country, teams use their conference tournaments as a second chance. Some look at them as their only path into the NCAA Tournament, some view them as an opportunity to pick up an extra victory or two that will help their at-large chances, and some use them to improve their seeds.
But few approach them the way K-State is this week.
This is its shot at redemption.
"When people ask me what's your goal, I say it's to compete for the Big 12 championship," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "If we can put ourselves in that conversation, then we're good enough to beat anyone else in the country."
By winning eight of their last nine games, and defeating league heavyweights Texas and Kansas on national television, the Wildcats have already proven they are talented enough to beat any team in the Big 12. They are the nation's 19th-ranked team, and they are beginning to be called one of the most dangerous squads in the country.
Not that the Wildcats are big on what others say about them.
"Even though we might be ranked 19th, we're not settling for that," Jordan Henriquez-Roberts said. "We know we're under the radar, but we put ourselves under the radar."
They won't be satisfied until they have something tangible to hold, like a championship ring.
"It's important to a lot of the guys, especially Jacob and Curtis (Kelly), knowing it's their last time playing in the Big 12 Tournament," Henriquez-Roberts said. "It means a lot to us underclassmen to help them. Rankings don't really mean much to us right now. Coming out and winning three games in three days is what is on our minds."
A mixture of poor coaching, mediocre leadership and myriad off-court problems prevented them from competing for a regular-season crown, but the beauty of conference tournaments is none of that matters.
The Wildcats have said goodbye to two starting forwards, moved past multiple player suspensions and are running a different offense than they were in January.
The reset button has been hit.
Today, they can start fresh, and think back to the positive memories they made while earning byes in each of the past three Big 12 Tournaments and advancing to the title game a year ago.
"Our guys have accomplished some good stuff to be in the upper third of the league for four consecutive years," Martin said. "Now you've got to go play. When you've got guys who have been through it and been so close where you can taste it, it makes you a little hungrier. It makes you want it a little bit more."
No one more than Pullen.
During the past week, he has spent a lot of time saying goodbye to fans and answering questions about his legacy. Is he one of the top players in Big 12 history? Should his jersey be retired at K-State? How does he hope fans remember him?
The process has been difficult and emotional for him, but focusing on the future has helped him put the past in perspective.
He hopes his play this week will answer those questions.
"I want them to remember," Pullen said, "that I brought K-State a championship."