March 21, 2008

Martin's work throughout season shows

OMAHA, Neb. - America, meet the Kansas State Wildcats. Come to think of it, Kansas State Wildcats meet the Kansas State Wildcats. And while we're at it, everyone who didn't know him before, meet Coach Frank Martin.

The Wildcats became reacquainted with themselves just in a nick of time. Left in one of those cliché do-or-die NCAA Tournament moments that faces every team, every game during this event, K-State did. And, boy, the Cats, the 11th seed in the Midwest Regional, did it in a big way during their resounding, headline-grabbing 80-67 victory over the sixth-seeded Southern California Trojanson Thursday night at Omaha's Qwest Center.

K-State offered the kind of swarming-defense, fanatical-rebounding, pace-dictating, in-your-face-college-basketball-world performance they had shown during the early stages of the Big 12 seasons. The K-State team that served up the first day of the tournament's only major upset in terms of seeding was the team that won its first five league contests. That was the team that tamed then-unbeaten Kansas. That was the team that not only manhandled then-No. 9 Texas A&M, but shattered the Aggies' sense of dominance.

"It was the first time we played like that since the KU game back in January," freshman forward Dominique Sutton said. "We knew as a team we had to play team defense. If we come out as one, we will win as one. If we come out motivated, we can be the best defensive team in the nation."

Yes, this was the team that Martin was so busy constructing during the season until injuries, a suspension and the death of a senior guard Clent Stewart's mother helped knocked his team off track.

"We had healthy guys," Martin said. "We lost three starters right in the middle of conference play. It's hard to do some things when you only have eight people healthy. What am I going to do, run a bunch of 18-year-olds into the ground? Once everybody got back and back into the flow and got their minds right, we just continued to compete."

The Wildcats were in full force against the Trojans and not only seemed better for it, but the tough-love lessons of the season taught by a flame-throwing first-year coach took hold.

Some might say Martin has matured in his first-year as a head coach. Some might think that he's learning as he goes, but while understanding that Frank Martin is a first-year coach who must learn his lessons too, this game played out as it was written in his master plan.

Martin first marched his team through a challenging non-conference schedule that had his freshman-loaded Wildcats play such teams at Xavier and Notre Dame away from home. He then shifted gears for Big 12 season, hoping to craft his team into a hardened group who could play anyone, anywhere.

As it turned out, the teaching process was about as pretty to watch at times as the work of a sausage maker. The results, though, were tasty, indeed.

Throughout the season, Martin didn't just beat up freshmen Jacob Pullen, Ron Anderson and Sutton, he bludgeoned them.

Pullen, a defense-shattering point guard, in particular often drew the wrath of the coach for his questionable decision making at times and his only occasional interest in playing the frantic man-to-man defense around which Martin wants to build his program.

Anderson was an inconsistent practice player and a so-so defender who needed to toughen up for the Big 12. Sutton, meanwhile, arrived at K-State in late December as the final piece of the roster that features seven freshmen who are on the active roster, and all seven were among the 11 players who saw the floor for the Wildcats against USC. Sutton learned on the fly, struggling to figure out the offense while attempting to become the shutdown defender Martin wanted him to be.

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