Kansas State University

Kansas State's Jacob Pullen regains magic

Kansas State's Jacob Pullen goes up for a shot in the first half against Virginia Tech on Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Ks. Third-ranked Kansas State defeated 22nd-ranked Virginia Tech 73-57. (Nov. 16, 2010)
Kansas State's Jacob Pullen goes up for a shot in the first half against Virginia Tech on Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Ks. Third-ranked Kansas State defeated 22nd-ranked Virginia Tech 73-57. (Nov. 16, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

MANHATTAN — Jacob Pullen is ready to play his final game at Bramlage Coliseum, but he isn't prepared to say goodbye.

Ask him about the challenges Iowa State will present Kansas State today, or how important it is that the Wildcats continue their late-season surge, and he speaks with passion about what lies ahead.

The way he and K-State are playing, he knows a memorable postseason run is possible. After a forgettable start, he has emerged as a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate and the Wildcats have climbed out of a midseason ditch to become one of the nation's hottest teams.

Pullen wants it all to stay that way.

For him, that means covering his ears when a stranger asks what he thinks about needing 78 points to match the school's career scoring record, and shrugging his shoulders while discussing senior day and the legacy he will leave behind.

"I know that time is winding down, but there is so much more basketball left," Pullen said. "Every game is so important that you don't have time to really stop and worry about the end of your career or the last home game. You've just got to worry about the next game, because they all mean so much right now."

* *

Deciding to stay in college was easy. Blocking out thoughts of NBA scouts, Final Four expectations and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated were not.

After deciding to return to K-State and chase a national championship, everything seemed possible.

But the pressure of it all — 29-win season and Elite Eight appearance, No. 3 in the preseason polls, preseason All-American — engulfed him.

"I got caught up in all the preseason stuff," Pullen said, "... and forgot about what I needed to do to make this team better."

Rather than sticking with the tenacious approach he used as a junior, Pullen tried to become a traditional, pass-first point guard. He thought the switch would help both his team, and his NBA chances.

But 11 games into the season, the strategy wasn't working. Pullen had scored 20 or more points in three games, and was terrible in a much-publicized showdown against Duke, scoring four points and giving up easy baskets. His teammates weren't scoring all that much, either.

"I didn't understand what I needed to do, totally," Pullen said, "as far as scoring the ball and getting people involved."

Then came a three-game suspension for accepting impermissible clothing discounts at a local Dillard's. That's when everything really started falling apart.

K-State lost five of its first seven conference games, two players quit the team and Pullen's leadership was called into question when he said he would not participate in the NIT should the Wildcats miss out on the NCAA Tournament.

Stress hit him as hard as the expectations did. He spent a lot of time alone, thinking.

"It was affecting him a lot," teammate Curtis Kelly said. "You heard him sigh a lot."

* *

When he was at his best as a junior, Pullen did it all. He drained outside shots, attacked the basket, got to the free-throw line and insisted on defending the opponent's top scorer.

So his older brothers had a simple question for him when they called last month to talk about K-State's slump: "Why did you stop playing that way?"

The higher gear they had seen him use in big high school games against Derrick Rose and Evan Turner was gone. The relentlessness he showed in last year's NCAA Tournament had vanished. Where was the guy who used to cry after losses?

Not once had he approached that effort as a senior.

"I had to get back to the mindset that no one in the country could guard me and I could score any time I wanted," Pullen said. "I wasn't being assertive. I had to start taking over games. I realized that's what's going to make plays for my teammates, not trying to be unselfish."

His aggressiveness picked up immediately. He scored 38 points against then-No. 1 Kansas and has scored 20 or more every game since. K-State has won 7 of 8.

"When it's go-time against the really good people, he steps his game to another level," assistant coach Brad Underwood said. "That's what you're seeing right now. The great ones have the ability to do that."

Added K-State coach Frank Martin: "I call that being a winner."

The way he handled national media mocking his NIT boycott remark — which he made as an attempt to motivate teammates — also helped his team.

"After that comment about the NIT, he has been committed," teammate Rodney McGruder said. "He wanted to get us to the NCAA Tournament. That's what motivated him to do what he's doing."

He has become the Big 12's leading scorer in conference games, averaging 21.7 points, and his confidence is back.

When his streak of strong games began, teammates say he promised them he would outplay BYU scoring phenom Jimmer Fredette the remainder of the season.

"He was so sick of hearing about Jimmer," freshman Shane Southwell said. "At the beginning of the season, people were looking at Jake like one of the top five players in the country. Then he felt like people wrote him off. He's trying to get back up there in the Player of the Year conversation. I know I'd vote for him. I feel he's the best player in the country, and it's not even close."

* * *

Any time Pullen needs a reminder of how much his contributions to K-State have meant the past four years, all he has to do is eat out.

While he dines, others stare. It happens everywhere he goes, and his father, Jerome, likes to keep track of how long it takes for the first fan to ask for an autograph.

"The flood gates open," Pullen's father said. "Everyone in the place starts stopping by. What makes me laugh is that Jacob really likes that part of it. I've never seen him tell anyone no."

He's never thought to.

"That feeling just makes you feel that you're appreciated," Pullen said. "You really feel that everything you do on that court is worth it. They care about everything."

In time, maybe he can appreciate his accomplishments in the same way. Until then, his parents will be there to help the same way they were last week, when Pullen scored his 2,000th point against Missouri, and his father took special care of the basketball used that afternoon.

"Jacob doesn't realize the gravity of what he's done yet," Pullen's father said. "He's just so focused on right now, always saying, 'We've got to win this next game.' The records and awards aren't on his mind, but down the road he's going to want that, so he can remember how special — really special — his time at K-State has been."