March 18, 2008

Martin thankful team got job done

On the morning before Kansas State put to rest a dozen years of absence from the NCAA Tournament, first-year head coach Frank Martin sat in church and prayed. There are prayers for being thankful and there are prayers for strength. Then there are the white-knuckled prayers saved for opportunities like this, when a dream is so close you can almost touch it. That was Martin, the only K-State rookie coach to beat Kansas in a debut game in 87 years and now the second to lead the Wildcats to a tournament bid in his first campaign.

"I prayed that these kids get the opportunity to play in this tournament because it's another great step for our program," Martin told a room of gatherers in the Legends Room at Bramlage Coliseum on Sunday night. "You don't sprint out of the hospital the day you are born."

But you got the feeling that somewhere inside his soul, Martin, who turns 42 on Sunday, floated out of Doe's Eat Place in Manhattan following the official announcement, although his jaw was probably clenched and brow furrowed akin to the boxer who uses pats on the back only to fuel the competitive fire for the next bout.

"This is what everybody who coaches and plays Division I basketball plays for, to be in this tournament and to be one of the top 64 teams in the country," he said. "They don't ask you what you did to get there. All they say is, 'Here is your opportunity, go make the most of it.'

"That's all we wanted and we are thankful for it."

The Wildcats' 12-year NCAA Tournament drought came to an end shortly after 5:30 p.m., about midway through the selection special. The Wildcats, 20-11, learned they earned the No. 11 seed as an at-large bid in the Midwest Region and will travel 146 miles to Omaha, Neb., to face sixth-seeded Southern California, 21-11, in a first-round game at 6:20 p.m. on Thursday.

It has been billed as one of the most intriguing first-round games in years.

Martin remains determined to make the Big Dance a normal stop for a tradition-rich program that despite its Sweet 16 appearances (16), Elite Eights (11) and Final Fours (four) last earned a bid in 1996 and hasn't won a tournament game since a 73-70 upset of No. 1 seed Purdue in the Sweet 16 in 1988. Understand Martin loves K-State basketball history - loves it. He calls assistant coach Matt Figger his statistic guy. Martin said every day Figger gives him a piece of K-State basketball trivia.

Makes you wonder how many times during the past five months Figger has started out, "Frank, do you realize this is the first time since …"

Heartbreak? Martin knows it too well. He helped Bob Huggins and Cincinnati to back-to-back tournaments in 2004 and 2005. But Martin's last two experiences in March involved consoling disappointed kids on bubble-burst teams Cincinnati in 2006 and K-State last season. He saw K-State fall to Texas A&M, 63-60, three days before in the Big 12 quarterfinals in Kansas City, marking the fifth loss in seven games for the Wildcats, who still maintained a respectable RPI (55), strength of schedule (33) and finished the regular season third-place in the Big 12.

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