Kansas State University

March 17, 2011

Jacob Pullen carries the weight of a team

TUCSON — The NCAA Tournament is about to turn someone into a star.

TUCSON — The NCAA Tournament is about to turn someone into a star.

Just wait. This time next week, its top-performing player will grace the cover of magazines and appear on televisions across the country. It happens every year.

Breakout performances in March Madness have turned Wally Szczerbiak into a pronounceable name, made Stephen Curry a national player of the year candidate at tiny Davidson and helped Bill Bradley become a senator.

The NCAA Tournament is loved for many reasons, and star players are one of them — right up there with office pools, "One Shining Moment," and the bracket itself.

Kansans should understand that better than anyone. In 1988, they watched as Danny Manning led a Kansas roster of role players to a national title. And in 1965, Bradley scored a then-record 58 points to lead Princeton to a victory over Wichita State in the third-place game.

This month, Kansas State is hoping to find similar success by leaning on its own star player, Jacob Pullen.

"When you go deep into the tournament you get credit for being a really good player," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "Jacob has been through it before. He had some pretty good games in the tournament last year and created a name for himself. Now he gets another opportunity. He's carried us before, and our team believes in him now."

Twelve years ago, Szczerbiak found himself in the same position.

Playing for Miami (Ohio), Szczerbiak was one of the nation's top scorers. The Redhawks, a No. 10 seed, revolved around him. If they were to succeed, he knew he would need to play his best. One off day and the dream was done.

But he embraced the pressure and scored 43 points in a first-round 59-58 win over No. 7 seed Washington at the Louisiana Superdome. Then came a second-round game against heavily favored Utah, a No. 2 seed, where he scored 24 points and guided Miami to a 66-58 win.

He played in the NBA for a decade and currently works as a college basketball analyst with CBS College Sports, but he never received more attention than he did in that moment.

"I didn't really know what hit me," Szczerbiak said in a telephone interview. "Every media outlet in the country was calling my way, trying to get interviews. I think the school handled it real well and I had fun with it. That week had a big impact on my life."

But how did it happen? What enabled one player to be so explosive for two games and lead his team to a Sweet 16? Didn't Washington and Utah know about his offensive skills? Wouldn't a balanced team have been harder to prepare for?

Maybe, but there is something about the NCAA Tournament, especially in the early rounds, that favors star-driven teams.

Coaches have less time than usual to prepare for upcoming games, scouting reports aren't nearly as in depth as usual and teams aren't familiar with each other.

Szczerbiak looked at that combination like a winning lottery ticket.

"Conference play was getting to the point where I had two or three guys hanging on me every game," he said. "Teams really knew how to prepare for me. I really looked forward to something different. Then in that first round Washington guarded me straight up."

He paused a moment to chuckle.

"And they paid for it. I scored 43 points. When you play in the tournament, with the neutral court and everything else, I think talent wins out as a result. So when you have a guy who can single-handedly win a game, that's definitely a skill and a luxury."

Pullen gives K-State that luxury.

Sure, he may not be as talked about as BYU scoring phenom Jimmer Fredette or as clutch as Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, but he is on the nation's short list of premier players.

Last year in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, he matched up against Fredette and thoroughly outplayed him, scoring 34 points while holding Fredette to 21 points on 13 attempts. During a decisive win over Kansas this season, he did it all and scored 38 points.

Now, it's important to understand that K-State isn't exactly a one-man show. Senior forward Curtis Kelly can hold his own inside and sophomore guard Rodney McGruder has led the Wildcats in scoring during key victories.

Pullen can play an average game and his team can still win. But he's not nearly as protected in the lineup as he was a year ago, when Denis Clemente ran the offense and Dominique Sutton anchored the defense.

As a result, K-State relies on him as the team's leading scorer as well as its best, and only, lock-down defender. When he is off on either end, the Wildcats are susceptible. In a single-elimination tournament, that can put a lot of pressure on any individual.

"That's the thing with star players," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who faced Curry in the 2008 Elite Eight. "It's always dangerous putting the ball in a great player's hands, because he can go out and win you a game. But if he's not great that night, you can be beat easily."

Pullen understands the situation. Asked if K-State's tournament success relies solely on how he plays, he nodded his head.

"That's possible," he said. "But at the same time when we have guys stepping up.... it's possible for us to make a deep run with just me having a solid game."

He believes in his teammates, and they are confident in him. More than anything, that's what makes another run possible for K-State.

See, not just any talented player is capable of carrying his team. For every Szczerbiak, there are 10 scorers who made a lot of baskets and never got past the first round. It takes the right skill set and personality to make it all work.

Heading into his final NCAA Tournament, Pullen is embracing that responsibility.

"For me," Pullen said, "it's about understanding that these are my last few days and I need to go take advantage of them."

The opportunity to return to star status is pretty appealing, too.

"It's the biggest stage in college basketball," Pullen said. "Growing up as a kid, that's what everyone paid attention to. You watch conference games and all that stuff, but when NCAA Tournament came on everyone in every place paid attention to that."

Manning, who declined comment for this story, is another player who cherished the NCAA Tournament and knew how to lead his team.

Former KU guard and current radio analyst Chris Piper, who played alongside Manning in 1988, said even though the Jayhawks' offensive gameplan was as simple as "get the ball to Danny" on most possessions, he never demanded the ball.

If someone else was open and took a shot, he happily tried to rebound. Unlike some elite scorers, he showed trust in his teammates, and they showed it right back.

"With us in '88, we had some guys who all knew what their roles were and they accepted them," Piper said. "They thought winning was more important than personal goals."

Manning included.

"Danny was, and is, so humble," Piper added. "He was a team player, and he did whatever it took. Playing with a guy like that was easy. Hell, if my role was to wash his laundry that would have been fine with me. Our team had it figured out."

The question today is: Does K-State?

The Wildcats did last season, but that was a completely different team and Pullen had a vastly different role. Can he handle everything that comes with being the star of a star-driven team?

K-State thinks it already has the answer.

"Guys like Jacob are able to stand up and bring a team together," Martin said. "He has never wavered in his belief in this program. That's a credit to him, and I know I will continue to ride his back for as long as I can."

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