Kansas State University

Kansas State wants to avoid rocky Big 12 start

MANHATTAN — Rodney McGruder is proud of what Kansas State has accomplished this season.

The No. 11 Wildcats have played so well during their 13-1 start that he says there's no other emotion. After all, it's been more than 20 years since a K-State basketball team was ranked as highly.

"You can't ask for anything better," he said.

McGruder is a freshman guard who only knows success at the college level. K-State guard Jacob Pullen likes that, and encourages McGruder to take satisfaction in the Wildcats' run through nonconference play.

But he also offers a warning: It doesn't take much for a promising season to evaporate.

Pullen knows that as well as anyone. This time last year, the Wildcats took a 10-3 record into Big 12 play and were thinking big. But an 0-4 conference start left them scrambling. By the time they recovered, winning 9 of 12 down the stretch, it was too late.

Instead of a second straight NCAA Tournament, K-State was off to the NIT.

"If we just win two of those four games," Pullen said, "we're probably in the NCAA Tournament and in the top three of the conference."

With Saturday's Big 12 opener at Missouri ahead, Pullen says he thinks about that four-game skid almost daily.

"That motivates me, and everyone who played on this team last year," Pullen said. "We understand how tough the Big 12 is and how important it is to get off to a good start."

Added senior guard Denis Clemente: "The first four games were really bad. I don't want to feel that way this season. We want to walk away from this game with a W, move forward and just get it done."

So Pullen and Clemente have told their stories to K-State's rookies. This is no time to feel content, but the time they need to play their best basketball. This is when the real season begins.

The message was received.

"They talk to us about it a lot," McGruder said. "This is a different type of play than we've been playing so far. It's a lot tougher. This is where we prove ourselves right now and show everyone what we're capable of."

Unlike Pullen and Clemente, K-State coach Frank Martin isn't talking about the past at all.

"I don't worry about last game," Martin said. "I worry less about last year. It's a different basketball team than it was last year. It's got different personalities, different personnel... we're worried about what we can do today to get better for tomorrow."

Senior Chris Merriewether believes the Wildcats are doing everything they can for that to happen, even if there is some talk of the past.

"We've worked hard for that number next to our name, but it means nothing right now," Merriewether said. "This is a new season. It starts 0-0 and we've got to keep working and keep winning. We want to be 1-0 on Saturday."