It’s happening again.
The Big 12 Tournament is under way, pressure to make the NCAA Tournament is at its peak and Kansas State is thriving. The Wildcats have won four of their past five games, including road wins over top-10 teams Baylor and Missouri, and are playing at their highest level — all after months of ups and downs, player suspensions and erratic play.
A month ago, K-State’s starting five changed on any given night. Less than three weeks ago it was impossible to predict K-State’s chances of reaching the NCAAs. Today, K-State is as hot as anyone in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
Should anyone be surprised?
The same thing happened a year ago. Similar paths were taken during Frank Martin’s first two seasons at K-State. Go back to when Martin coached high school basketball in Miami and you’ll find the same pattern. Every team is different, but all of Martin’s teams share one trait: They play their best basketball late.
“Everything I do, every decision I make, the way I prepare for practice, the way we prepare for every game — the objective is to be the best team we can be at this time of year,” Martin said. “That’s what we’re about. Everything we try to do is for that.”
It’s a mission that starts at the beginning of each season, when Martin instills his personality on his players. He’s hard on them, wanting them to become better players and people.
Sometimes it doesn’t take long for players to grasp his message. When he coached a team loaded with upperclassmen two years ago, the Wildcats contended for a Big 12 championship and advanced to the Elite Eight. When he has coached younger teams, like this year’s squad with one scholarship senior, it has taken much longer.
Good thing teaching ranks high above speed as a priority for Martin.
“I’m about winning in the long run,” Martin said. “I’m not going to circumvent winning in the long run, and in life, for anything. Whether it’s March, next year, two years from now or five years from now, I’m not going to sacrifice winning in the long run to win a game. I’m never going to put winning a game above my responsibility as an educator. I’m just never going to do that.
“It’s a daily responsibility I accepted when I chose this profession to help these young kids become young men during their college careers. That never stops. It’s the same message I send my own kids as I try to educate them every day. I hold people accountable for their responsibilities. I refuse to put winning games ahead of that.”
Even if it means taking drastic measures such as benching and suspending players. Even if it means losing a few games.
Starters Jamar Samuels, Jordan Henriquez and Angel Rodriguez have missed time for motivational or disciplinary purposes. Without them, K-State lost games it was favored to win and struggled to find its identity.
Everything turned out OK, but some have questioned whether those moves were necessary. They wondered if the Wildcats could have gotten where they are today without first flirting with the NIT.
Not Martin. His main goal in coaching is to teach life lessons. This is his method.
Though it might not be conducive to winning a conference title every year, it has worked well enough for his teams to reach the postseason and win more than 20 games in his first five seasons at K-State. And he has become one of the most recognizable coaches in the Big 12.
“Five years ago, I was the guy that was supposed to last for maybe a week,” Martin said. “Now I’m one of the tenured guys in the league. I’m lucky. That’s just a credit to our staff, our players and our administration.”
They all work together to ensure Martin’s teams develop early on and play their best heading into March. It’s all part of his design. He wants his players to live by the Jack Fertig quote they walk past every day in K-State’s locker room.
Stick to that theory long enough and, eventually, you are going to be at your best. No amount of troubles can get in the way.
“I respect that approach,” said junior guard Rodney McGruder, “because it means giving it your all at all times. It means Frank is doing everything he can and so are we. He really tries to get after people and push them. He wants the best out of us. We want the best out of ourselves.”
The results are beginning to show.
“I’m not sure what happens to us,” Samuels said. “It’s like Coach puts batteries in our backs and we become robots and just go play. We are still the same team, but guys are more relaxed now and we are not playing as tense.”
They understand the message now. Martin has less teaching to do. That’s not to say he has stopped using tough love or stopped disciplining players. But he is happy with his team. After some hard times, they have finally met his demands.
“The difficult moments are not there to bust you apart,” Martin said. “They are there to make you more dependent on your teammates and to teach you the importance of being united and being there for one another. That’s happened for this team.”
When that happens, K-State is at its best. That usually happens this time of year.
It’s happening again.
“We are so much better right now than we were,” Martin said. “It’s day and night. We are a much more mature basketball team. We are just a better team. We never played for a game. We played for the whole season. That’s what you strive for.”