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February 25, 2011The theme in Bramlage Coliseum on Thursday centered on an awakening. No doubt, since suffering its worst showing of the season at Kansas on Jan. 29, Kansas State has come alive and is playing its best basketball of the season. That the Wildcats have won six of their last seven, including a crucial 61-57 win at Nebraska on Wednesday, doesn't necessarily surprise K-State coach Frank Martin. It's what he expects from his players in the locker room.
"Our guys have pride. Our guys have a lot of pride," Martin said. "They respect that uniform way too much and they've signed up to do this together. They're not going to allow a loss or a bad day, or somebody just being better than us on a given day, they're not going to allow that to break their spirit. I'm really proud of them for that.
"The easy thing to do in anything you do is quit. When things are hard, it's easy to quit. That's what everyone does in today's society. You've got a job to do and you don't like what's going on -- just quit. The hard thing to do is continue to believe in your people and stay the course. That's what these kids have done."
At 19-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big 12 Conference, K-State currently sits alone in fifth-place with a chance to catch No. 20 Missouri, 22-6 and 8-5, when the teams meet at 11 a.m. Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum. Yes, the Wildcats have covered much ground since starting out at 1-3 following a 75-59 loss at then-No. 15 Missouri the last time the teams met on Jan. 17.
Only a last-second loss at Colorado prevents K-State from currently owning a six-game winning streak. But two days after losing in Boulder, the Wildcats responded by handing top-ranked Kansas their worst loss in Manhattan since 1982.
That crackling sound in Bramlage less than 24 hours after sending Nebraska to only their second home loss this season? It's the Wildcats. They're energized. They're alive. And they're currently playing their way into the NCAA Tournament.
"We're just playing well in February and really just putting together a good string of games and really just trying to find a way to keep our momentum going," said preseason All-American Jacob Pullen, the hottest-scoring player in the Big 12. "We took that loss at Colorado and bounced back against Kansas and that was big for our team and our morale. It showed us that this month, like I always tell them, it's a different month.
"We've just got to continue to play and try to win games."
K-State carries a certain mystique in February. The Wildcats, 21-8 during the month under Martin, swept February last season and are 5-1 in the month this season. Additionally, K-State is 13-2 at home in February and hasn't lost a home game during the month since a 85-74 loss to then-No. 16 Kansas on Feb. 14, 2009.
In short, February serves as the Wildcats' fourth gear.
"That's something we focus on, is getting better as the year goes on, and trying to be at our best at this time of year," Martin said. "Last year, we didn't lose in February at all. This year, February has been good to us so far. It's part of what we try to do, which is continue to get better, not become somebody in December and let's try to hold on for dear life here. We're constantly trying to push to get better, constantly trying to challenge to continue to make everybody a little bit better individually. If you can do that then collectively you get a lot better."
Martin, who remains perfect against Missouri at home, has a chance to add onto a milestone as the only K-State head coach in history to earn 20 wins in each of his first four seasons. While Lon Kruger had two 20-win teams in his first four seasons, six other head coaches combined for four 20-win seasons in their first four campaigns.
The key to his sustained success partly parallels the current climb taking place in the second half of the league schedule.
"It's stability with the coaches, man," Martin said. "Our staff has been intact since the day we walked on this campus and that stability gives you stability with the players, gives you consistency in what you do and, obviously, the last part, the most important part, is those kids. Having a locker room with some guys that are committed to putting in the time, staying together, believing the message and continuing to work and take on challenges rather than run way from challenges.
"At the end of the day, it's about those kids. They're the ones that are sacrificing, going out there every day, doing the things that need to be done to win the next game on the schedule."
The key to Martin's sustaining power?
"I mean he yells," junior forward Jamar Samuels said. "He recruits players that when he yells at them, he gets them to play harder and brings out all 100 percent in them. And I really do appreciate that out of him. I know that if he didn't yell at me, I wouldn't be here.
"We've just been playing the way Kansas State has played the last couple years I've been here and knowing we can end out the year in the third or fourth spot is always good. We're just trying to get a bye for the Big 12 Tournament."
K-State would inch a little bit closer with a win over the Tigers. For as much as players maintained business mode on Thursday, speaking with determined faces noticeably absent of the bubbling personalities that have become as familiar as the Wildcats' success in recent years, players described a scene of jubilation on the bus ride from Lincoln the night before.
"Everyone was really excited," Samuels said. "We were all talking on the bus. We were all excited that we'd just swept a team."
K-State did so behind its fiery senior leader again. Pullen, the Big 12 Player of the Week after combining for 65 points against Kansas and Oklahoma, finished with 27 points against the Huskers. His 92 points in three games are the most by a K-State player since Michael Beasley had 102 between Feb. 25 and March 4, 2008. It's also the most points in a three-game stretch by a Big 12 player this season.
"I'm just in a rhythm," Pullen said.
Samuels said, "A couple of us guys, we're going to step up," Samuels said. "We know that for a fact. But we're just going to keep on riding the high horse. Jake is scoring at crazy rates, almost doing Mike Beasley numbers. He's doing his thing right now."
Asked if Pullen was playing the best of any player in the league, Martin replied, "I'll let you make that decision. I'm glad he plays for me. That's what I'll say."
While the core covenant remains the same, time passes at breakneck speed in a college basketball season. The Wildcats, who were 14-8 after the 90-66 loss at Kansas, awakened just in time.
"You wake up one morning and you're ranked No. 3. You wake up the next day and you're unranked," Pullen said. "It's been a long season but at the same time it's been a quick season. Stuff happens and you look up and time is flying by. Time doesn't wait for anybody but you just make the best of what's going on."
And now only three games, including two at home, remain in the regular season.
"I just woke up and thought we were still in Kansas City at the CBE Classic," Samuels aid. "It's February, almost March, now. I'm just ready to dance, man, to get out of Manhattan and go to a different state, or something like that, someplace warm."
True to Martin's word, the Wildcats have stayed the course and have continued to climb since that quiet, cold bus ride home from Lawrence, seemingly a small eternity ago.
Once deemed to be on life support, the Wildcats are alive and kicking with vigor, envisioning sunnier times ahead.
A month ago, those outside the walls at Bramlage would've suggested it was all wishful thinking.
Those inside the walls believe it was the foundation for this awakening.