LAS VEGAS -- Kansas State comes off its most complete game of the season. Now the Wildcats will see if they're ready for the next step here at the Orleans Arena. The faces have changed since the Wildcats captured the Las Vegas Invitational title in 2006, but players are focused on doing it again. K-State on Friday night must first get past Kentucky, which is in the midst of a growth movement of its own.
Sophomore guard Jacob Pullen, who has paced a balanced squad this season, had a career-high 26 points in a 83-64 win against Oakland on Tuesday. It was the latest of five opponents to fall to an explosive Wildcats' squad that feels it has much to prove to the rest of the nation in its second campaign under Frank Martin.
One by one, Florida A&M, Southeastern Missouri State, Emporia State and Cleveland State also collapsed like dominoes against a defense that has allowed just 36.7 percent shooting from the floor, while the backcourt duo of Pullen and junior Denis Clemente have led a fast and opportunistic attack that has outscored foes by an average of 22 points.
The Wildcats salivate at the opportunity to face the Kentucky Wildcats -- the all-time winningest NCAA program, which has already taken some lumps in the non-conference with a 111-103 loss to Virginia Military Institute in Lexington and a 77-58 loss at top-ranked North Carolina.
"(This) gives us a chance to go out and prove ourselves and prove that Kansas State basketball is back now," Pullen said. "It's not in the slump that maybe they went through for a few years. It's here and as long as Frank is here, he's going to continue to bring good players through and Kansas State basketball is going to be something to deal with."
Martin, then the assistant head coach under Bob Huggins when the Wildcats left Orleans Arena with the trophy following wins against Southern California and New Mexico, understands the importance of these types of contests.
If K-State gets past Kentucky, it will play the Iowa-West Virginia winner in the tournament championship game at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. A loss would send K-State to the losers' bracket and the day's first game at 6:30 p.m.
"(Early non-conference games) prepare you to play the Kentuckys, then Iowa or West Virginia the next day, then Southern Miss later on and then at Oregon," Martin said. "Then those games prepare you for the Big 12. To have a chance, you've got to be able to line up and play these guys."
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