Kansas State University

Kellis Robinett breaks down the Wildcats

Frank Martin has guided Kansas State to the postseason in each of his four seasons as head coach, and that streak will almost certainly be extended this March.

But simply reaching the postseason is no longer viewed as a grand accomplishment in Manhattan. After making the NCAA Tournament in three of the past four seasons, and winning at least one game in each of those trips, the Wildcats have grown accustomed to playing on college basketball's biggest stage.

Reaching that stage for a third straight time is their only goal. Whether they can achieve it depends on how returning contributors Rodney McGruder, Jamar Samuels and Will Spradling grow into leadership roles and how quickly six newcomers can learn how to play in Martin's system.

The last time K-State entered a season with this much uncertainty in its lineup was during the 2008-09 season, when the Wildcats replaced current NBA players Michael Beasley and Bill Walker with a plethora of unproven talents. That team went 22-12, and had to settle for the NIT when it lost its first four Big 12 games.

This group, which Big 12 coaches picked to finish sixth in their preseason conference poll, faces a similar challenge after losing career scoring leader Jacob Pullen to graduation. But it will have the advantage of returning three starters who helped K-State win eight of its last nine regular-season games last year.

Having McGruder, a junior forward who scored 11.1 points and led K-State with 5.9 rebounds a year ago, to lean on will also help. He could be the key to the Wildcats' season.

A year ago, he emerged as one of the best scorers and grittiest players on the team despite playing through a bad case of tendonitis in his left knee. He is healthy now, and that will allow him to do more than shoot from the perimeter. He says he is beating defenders off the dribble and scoring near the basket more than before.

If he continues to improve and becomes one of the top players in the Big 12, K-State will exceed expectations. If post players Jordan Henriquez and Thomas Gipson can lessen his rebounding demands, the Wildcats will be even better off.

Players are looking forward to a new offense that doesn't flow through one player, but they will still need a go-to scorer to turn to at times. McGruder is the best candidate.

Spradling, a sophomore guard, and Samuels, a senior forward who pushed himself in the weight room during the offseason, will also be asked to take on more of a scorer's role.

Who surrounds them in the lineup is still a mystery. Shane Southwell offers starting experience, Henriquez is emerging as a shot-blocker and Angel Rodriguez looked good in K-State's scrimmage. But Gipson, Omari Lawrence and Jeremy Jones could start, too.

They will all need to provide depth. Without proven seniors to turn to, Martin will try to win with numbers. K-State should be able to play more aggressively on both ends with more fresh bodies.

It may take a while for Martin to settle on a consistent playing rotation and starting lineup. The sooner he does, the better off K-State will be. It has the talent to play in the NCAA Tournament this season, but the Big 12's new round-robin schedule will leave a small margin for error.

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