Kansas State University

K-State plans to regain drive

MANHATTAN — As with every game, Kansas State coach Frank Martin went back and analyzed the Wildcats' narrow overtime loss to Iowa State on video.

But he did so reluctantly.

Unlike most times this season, Martin didn't need the replay help to figure out why his ninth-ranked team unexpectedly fell to the struggling Cyclones. He knew the answer as soon as the game ended.

"We just didn't play with much enthusiasm," Martin said.

It was a difficult admission for Martin. Throughout K-State's breakthrough season, which has seen the Wildcats go from unranked all the way to the top 5, they have won games almost entirely because they showed great enthusiasm and drive.

Aside from an early-season blowout loss to Mississippi in Puerto Rico, which is the only other time Martin can remember his players acting lethargic, K-State played with intensity every time out.

It took pride in that passion.

The Wildcats wanted to earn a national ranking and prove to all the doubters they were capable of becoming more than a NCAA Tournament bubble team. Back then they had something to prove, and they played like it.

"We had a lot of swagger," sophomore forward Jamar Samuels said.

That swagger showed in statement games against Dayton, Xavier, UNLV, Texas A&M, then No. 1 Texas and Baylor. The Wildcats won every game, and they won playing their way. They defended with unmatched intensity. They relentlessly got to the free-throw line. They crashed the boards.

After each victory, many by lopsided margins, the Wildcats boasted that they had arrived.

Junior forward Curtis Kelly thinks K-State did everything with energy. Back then, he thought the Wildcats were "the thugs of the league."

He doesn't mean that literally, but when K-State was at its best, there was no denying its toughness. There was no denying its tenacity. Several opposing coaches and national media pundits said the Wildcats played harder than any team in the country.

But now, following two straight losses in which they showed little fight, Kelly says, "We've gotten soft."

"We are guys that rebound and defend," Kelly said. "We're hard-nosed. We need to get back to that. With Iowa State we played with no urgency, that's not our swagger. That's not what we do."

"We just gotta pick our swagger up to a different notch. I think guys got to a point where they were too smooth and calm with our swagger. We need to get back our swagger that's K-State, that's hype, that's in your face."

K-State began to stray from its trusted ways in February. Even though K-State went undefeated in seven games that month, their passion began to visibly fade. Their motivation changed from playing for respect to taking care of business.

Wins against unranked opponents, even on the road, no longer seemed worthy of cheers. The fun Jacob Pullen, Denis Clemente and Jamar Samuels used to have after games lessened as well.

The approach produced wins against a favorable schedule, and K-State climbed to No. 5 in the polls, but the wins came at a price.

"When we got in the top 5 and we really started doing well, we took our foot off the gas," Pullen said. "We said, 'We're here.' People started talking No. 1 seed and people just started relaxing. We haven't been aggressive like we have all season."

That showed when the Wildcats went to No. 1 Kansas last week with a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship still at stake. They let down late in a close game and ended up losing by their largest margin of the year.

Then K-State took its businesslike approach to a home game against Iowa State and never led after the opening moments. It was then that Samuels and Pullen decided they had taken the whole business thing too far.

"It's something that we talked about and decided we probably need to calm down on a little bit," Samuels said. "We don't want our team to get their head lost in it."

With the postseason starting on Thursday at the Big 12 Tournament, K-State has little time to find new motivation.

Players say that won't be a problem. They say recent practices have been better than any they can recall, and that back-to-back losses have given them newfound focus. From now on, they say they're on a mission.

A mission to regain their swagger.