MANHATTAN — Jerome Pullen is an expert at reading his son's emotions. But when the phone rang late Monday night at his home in suburban Chicago, he honestly had no idea what Jacob Pullen was going to say.
Would the Kansas State senior guard scream and celebrate the game of his life? Would he play coy and ask if they caught the ESPN highlights of his explosive 38-point performance in a thrilling win over top-ranked Kansas? Or would he simply call to talk?
Any reaction seemed possible. After watching his son fight through an up-and-down year, the Pullen family finally had reason to rejoice. His point total was the highest for an individual against a No. 1 team since Elvin Hayes hit UCLA with 39 in 1968. But the Wildcats are also still below .500 in Big 12 play. There is work left to be done. Is it OK to go wild over one victory?
Within seconds, the elder Pullen had his answer.
"I was pleasantly surprised," he said. "He wasn't overly exuberant. He just said, ‘Hello,’ like he always does and talked some about the game. He really thought the team came together that night. That's
what he seemed most proud of."
When the season began and K-State was ranked third nationally and expected to contend for a conference championship, that hype was assigned to the Wildcats in large part because of Pullen.
A preseason All-American who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, he was supposed to lead, drain outside shots, defend and give K-State a chance to win every night. While he is averaging 18.8 points for the Wildcats, he has struggled to dominate games the way he did as a junior.
He has also dealt with off-court distractions. In December, he served a three-game suspension for accepting impermissible discounts on clothing from a local Dillard's.
But, for one fantastic evening, all that seemed decades in the past and his talents put him at the center of the college basketball world.
"It was one of those nights," Jacob said. "The ball went in for me."
Perhaps he was due for a big game.
"He's a tremendous college basketball player, and we've seen him do things like that before," ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. "He was extraordinary. Obviously, you can't expect that on a
regular basis, but most players don't have high-water marks that are that high.
"It's extraordinary that his is. He's better than he's played throughout the course of the year. Some of that is him. Some of it is the circumstances his team has been through. But his teammates played very well against Kansas and he took advantage. That's something for K-State players to build on."
Jerome said his son was motivated Monday by the chance to beat his school's rival.
In high school, he always seemed to play hardest against current NBA star Derek Rose. Last year, he yearned to play his best against long-time friend Sherron Collins and scoring phenom Jimmer Fredette. This time, he wanted revenge for a 24-point loss to the Jayhawks earlier in the season.
"That's always incentive for him," Jerome said. "Whenever people are counting him out, he tries to play harder. He'll raise his game. Once he got out there and made a few shots, you could see the confidence swelling in him."
The win, Pullen’s second over Kansas, will assure him a nice spot in K-State history and makes him one of only a handful of current Big 12 players to come out on the winning end against the Jayhawks multiple times.
But Wildcats coach Frank Martin thinks he would have played the same way regardless of the opponent.
"Jake has been playing good for a while now," Martin said. "He has been real good and is playing like a big-time point guard."
Last spring, while trying to decide whether to turn pro or return to K-State, Pullen told his father he wanted to stay in school so he could win a national championship.
That dream no longer seems as realistic as it once did, but his father says he has never shown regret about his decision — though he is happier now that his astounding game against the Jayhawks at least gives the Wildcats a good opportunity to play for a championship come March.
"It's been a long season," Jacob said, "but at the same time we've been able to get through."
The Wildcats’ win over Kansas boosted them to No. 32 in the RPI, and with a marquee win now on their resume, three or four more victories will likely be enough to reach the NCAA Tournament.
"They still need to pile up wins, because one isn't enough to do it," Bilas said. "But if you look at the teams that are near them, one thing they've all proven is that they can lose to anyone. The separating
factor for those teams is who can beat good teams. That's one notch they've got. They've done it."The Wildcats can thank Pullen for that.
In time, maybe he can take great delight in his individual accomplishment, too.
"I'm sure he will do that at a later date," his father said. "He's in the moment, so he doesn't think about a lot of those things. But at some point, when he has the opportunity to look back, he's going to relish beating Kansas twice. Of all the highlights he has at K-State, that will be the one that sits right on top."