SALT LAKE CITY — When Kansas State gave its basketball coaching job to Frank Martin, I thought the worst.
Here we go, another school selling its soul to the pursuit of winning at all costs. Here we go, another program that chases AAU players without regard to academic or moral standing. Here we go, right down the drain.
Having been around the Wildcats for a few weeks now, nothing about what I thought is accurate.
K-State, even after losing to Butler 63-56 in the NCAA West Regional final Saturday afternoon, carries its head high, believing that the best is yet to come. These are impressive players and people who gave credit to the Bulldogs for the way they went about winning the game instead of blaming themselves or anyone else for losing.
Sure, opportunities were missed. You bet, the Wildcats were kicking themselves all the way back to Manhattan for not rising to the occasion. They didn't play their best.
But they played, they lost and they didn't whine and cry about the outcome.
"We didn't play real well,'' Martin said. "A lot of it had to do because of (Butler), not so much because of wrong-doing.''
K-State's players reflected on their shortcomings, but focused more on the reasons Butler won. It was refreshing to hear them talk, even in the hushed tones of defeat in a game with so much on the line.
The story is Butler going home to Indianapolis for the Final Four next weekend. It's Hollywood through and through.
Remember, though, K-State hasn't been to a Final Four since 1964. The dormant program that started to stir four years ago when Bob Huggins was hired is now kicking and screaming and made it closer to Indy than anyone expected before the season started.
"I told them that winning and losing are very superficial,'' Martin said of his post-game speech to players. "You invest so much and you should hurt when you don't win. But in the big picture, these kids have made a lot of people live for something again. They've made K-Staters around this country believe in them, believe in the program, believe in their school and stick their chest out.''
Credit Martin and his assistant coaches. They have recruited not only quality players, but quality people to K-State. They believe in giving second chances to players who couldn't find themselves in basketball or in life at other places. The Wildcats' roster is loaded with interesting, quality guys who are entertaining, thoughtful and who have more on their minds than just basketball.
It's a loose group, surprising considering the intensity that burns through Martin. But when he tells people he is first a mentor and an educator, and that basketball is just a forum he uses, he's not pulling anyone's leg.
I drowned out all of that talk at first. I've been around basketball coaches most of my life and mostly they are interested in the bottom line, like most people. It's not a character flaw. Coaches can be and often are important role models in the lives of young people, but the dollars they get paid at the big-time college level have changed the motives for some.
Martin strives for something more than the green, though. He relishes the chance to work with players from all backgrounds and spent a good portion of every news conference during the NCAA Tournament to espouse his theories on educating. His message is consistent and iron-fisted.
As much as he used his iron fist Saturday, nothing seemed to help.
K-State, obviously spent emotionally if not physically after a thrilling double-overtime win over Xavier on Thursday night, battled from 10 points down to take a one-point lead on a Denis Clemente three-pointer with 4:47 left.
But the Cats scored four points the rest of the way, two as the clock ran out of time. They started doing everything they weren't doing in their comeback, hoisting up forced shots and getting sloppy with their defense.
When asked about allowing that short-lived lead to dissipate so quickly, Martin offered no excuses.
"We didn't handle ourselves well,'' he said.
Then he proceeded to point out every flaw, as if each one of them was etched on a small diagram inside his brain.
"Offensively, I thought we settled,'' he said. "We got back in the game by attacking the rim, but then we started settling.''
Jacob Pullen, a big part of the comeback after a quiet first half, forced two three-pointers. The Wildcats rode Pullen and Clemente during their comeback, but forgot about their main source of first-half offense, Curtis Kelly. He was 6 of 10 in the first half and 6 of 10 for the game.
Yes, Butler did more to control Kelly after halftime. But K-State needed to get him more involved.
The Wildcats, even on tired legs, forced 20 Butler turnovers. That's a month's worth for the precise Bulldogs, who don't beat themselves.
The turnovers weren't as costly because of a surprising 41-29 rebounding advantage over the bigger, quicker and more athletic Wildcats.
The rebounding difference and K-State's 38.6-percent shooting are the best evidence that the Wildcats didn't completely have their legs under them.
Again, though, K-State, which scored seven points fewer than it has in a game this season, wasn't into the blame game. The Wildcats — minus Clemente, the senior leader who didn't make himself available for interviews afterward — were more interested in doling out praise for Butler.
"I think they're a really good defensive team,'' Kelly said. "I don't think they get credit enough for their defense. Their offense is fantastic in my eyes, but that defense is tough to play against.''
Pullen, too, gave it up for the opponent.
"They do a great job controlling the pace of the game,'' he said. "They never try to let the game get out of their reach and they don't try to speed up.''
Butler won, fair and square. And K-State knew it. The Wildcats didn't have their best day, but their best day is coming. The right man is coaching, the right players are playing and the right system is in place.
What K-State players should be asking themselves is: Where's the Final Four next year?