Kansas State University

Backcourt battles key for K-State

MANHATTAN — During scrimmages, Kansas State basketball coaches try to keep Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen on the same side. But every now and then, to give them more competition, they ask their top two guards to go head-to-head.

And the battles begin.

"They get after it," freshman guard Martavious Irving said. "They're two competitive players who don't like to get embarrassed, even by their own teammates."

Pullen said they sometimes go beyond pushing each other and get into trash talk because "it just makes sure there's excitement and energy involved out there."

Clemente and Pullen have possessed plenty of both this season. They have become one of the premier backcourt duos in the Big 12, and perhaps their friendly rivalry is part of the reason.

Clemente is averaging a career-best 15.6 points and can score in bursts. Pullen (18.6 points) has become the Wildcats' leading scorer and has been in double figures in every game.

Against UNLV, they combined to score 50, and in five other games cleared 40.

As long as the Wildcats win, both say it doesn't matter who scores more. The only time they care about that is when they're on different sides in practice.

"The way I look at it, I'm trying to get better every day, and so is he," Clemente said. "I go hard every minute of practice. We're both competitive guys, so we go after it all the time."

Even then, they can take some pride in getting beat.

"We want each other to be better," Pullen said. "If Denis doesn't play well, it's tougher for me to play well because then defenders can key in on me. I need Denis to play well and he needs me to play well."

K-State coach Frank Martin agrees. At the start of conference play, when both players experienced small scoring slumps, he quickly discovered the problem.

Hoping to give his starters extra practice time together, he had freshmen guarding Clemente and Pullen. That meant they were being pushed less in practice, and the drive to improve, which helped them succeed early in the season, began to suffer.

Now he has returned to regularly having them guard each other.

"Early in the year when we had them going against each other they were forced to compete and be extremely sharp," Martin said. "That's something that we try to continue to do in drill work, and things of that nature. We've tried to put them against each other as practice has gone deeper."

As long as they can handle the challenge, Martin doesn't anticipate that changing anytime soon.

"They're both very competitive," Martin said, "but they believe in each other. That's the most important part."