LAS VEGAS | It was a Thanksgiving spent away from home, a two-game tournament weekend described by Kansas State’s coaching staff as a “business trip,” which would have been fine had the Wildcats actually followed through and taken care of theirs.
Instead, all K-State has to show for its participation in the Las Vegas Invitational is tired legs, a collectively bruised ego and a couple of losses, the Wildcats’ first two of the season.
“I don’t think you learn anything from losing,” said K-State coach Frank Martin, and that was minutes after 1 a.m., early Saturday morning, following the Wildcats’ heartbreaking semifinal loss to Kentucky.
Moments later, Martin wondered aloud if his team had enough left – his terms were “will and inner strength” – to compete against Iowa, an athletically inferior club which offsets that disadvantage by running its offense with precision.
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Turns out his fears were warranted – sort of. The Wildcats (5-2) had more than enough, but the issue – again – was finishing as K-State fell, 65-63, as Cyrus Tate’s lay-up beat the final buzzer.
These Wildcats – with seven freshmen and sophomores on the roster and just one senior – are growing, and judging from the expressions on their faces Friday and Saturday, it’s rather painful at the moment.
“It’s tough, man,” freshman forward Jamar Samuels said. “We tried to come back, to come back strong, but That was a game we needed to win.”
Maybe Martin is right. Maybe nothing is learned from defeat. But a few things were made clear, such as:
Denis Clemente is struggling. He fouled out with 12 or so minutes left Saturday, capping a frustrating weekend in which he shot 6-of-20 and scored a total of 12 points.
More minutes might be necessary for Chris Merriewether, Buchi Awaji and Abdul Herrera. All three provide not only a defensive presence but, in the case of Merriewether, instant energy and hustle off the bench.
K-State doesn’t quit. In consecutive days, K-State eliminated double-digit leads. Against Iowa, though, the Wildcats actually took the lead late in regulation, going ahead, 53-52, on Jamar Samuels’ rebound and follow. The teams traded the lead on successive possessions,
And, despite his preseason protestations otherwise, it’s Pullen’s team. And right now, that’s both good and bad. He is assuming the role and responsibility of being K-State’s main offensive threat, even though there are still times when Martin questions his shot selection. Against the Hawkeyes, with less than two minutes left and trailing by two, Pullen found himself in trouble in the paint and turned the ball over, his second in as many trips. And for the second night in a row, Martin slammed his bottle of water on the court in front of K-State’s bench.
But Pullen quickly redeemed himself, twisting into the lane and locating Samuels, who held a definitive side edge inside. Samuels blew the two-footer, but he followed his miss with a tip, and the score was tied at 63 with eight seconds left.
Tate, though, provided the final margin for the Hawkeyes.
“I told the team I take full responsibility,” a sullen Pullen said. “I had two bad turnovers, and they lost us the game. As the leader of this team, I take full responsibility.”
It was a nice sentiment, and Pullen may have a point. But in losing two games by a combined four points, neither defeat could be pinned on one player alone. And now, with the next game – an away game at Oregon – not until Dec. 7, there will be plenty of time for further introspection.
Maybe lessons will be learned from a intense week of practice.