February 12, 2009

K-State hopes to keep winning streak alive

Not so long ago, just mentioning the word was enough to make most Kansas State supporters cringe, but the 'streak' currently occupying the minds of Wildcat fans is a touch different than the one that did so in the days leading up to the team's last home meeting with Kansas.

K-State, winners of six straight, is as hot as any school in the country, and head coach Frank Martin's team is starting to garner significant attention.

"This place looks a little different compared to the night we lost to Baylor," Martin said, noticing the increased number of reporters in the interview room following his team's 85-73 win over Texas Tech on Wednesday. "There are a heck of a lot more people around here now."

No Wildcat team has ever rallied to .500 after a 0-4 start to conference play, let alone been able to claw back its way to 6-4, so it comes as no surprise that everyone has been at least somewhat taken back by this squad's jet-powered resurgence.

Well, everyone except Martin that is.

For K-State's second-year head coach, expectations never changed. Despite what many saw as a young roster thin on mature talent, this year was never about weathering the storm or bridging the gap until a shiny crop of freshmen arrive prior to next season.

"I was discouraged with our record, but I've never been discouraged with our team," Martin said. "I understand how committed they are to winning. I know where they're at with that. I never got discouraged or worried about our team."

The goals for Martin's second season as a head coach were the same at the ones for his first: make a run in the Big 12 and qualify for the NCAA Tournament. As unlikely as it once seemed, the Wildcats are working toward accomplishing both, and they're doing it with some pace.

"Another win," K-State guard Jacob Pullen proclaimed following Wednesday's contest. "We can get in (the NCAA Tournament). With Missouri beating Kansas the other night, it just shows that Mizzou was a good win for us. I tell everyone that we have to win out. There are no more losses for us. That will get us into the NCAA Tournament. We have to win the rest of our games. I think that would show everyone that we deserve to be (in the tournament)."

It won't take winning out, but work remains to be done, and it's going to involve some heavy lifting. K-State has proven it can win on the road, but four of its six Big 12 victories have come against teams in the lower half of the conference standings, leaving some doubt as to whether or not the Wildcats are capable of consistently competing with the league's elite.

If a benchmark game is what Martin's team needs to grab the country's full attention, it won't have to look far to find it. No. 16 Kansas will bring its 8-1-conference record into Bramlage Coliseum this Saturday, and emerging from that contest with a win would certainly be enough to begin the process of etching the Wildcats' name into the minds of many, including members of the NCAA Tournament's selection committee.

Just days separate K-State from an all-important measuring stick.

"It would mean a lot (to beat KU.)," Pullen said. "I think it would prove a lot for us as a team. From the start of the season until now, people still say that without Mike (Beasley), we still can't do this and that, but if we win Saturday, it'll prove how hard everyone in that locker room has worked."

Plenty remains for the Wildcats to prove, but if confidence was ever in short supply, it definitely isn't these days.

"When we disrupt everything (our opponent) wants to do, there's no team that can play with us," Pullen said. "When we guard defensively, there's no team that can really play with us."

Words, confidence and even this current string of victories guarantee K-State exactly nothing, however. As a matter of fact, the only thing that's certain at this point is that the optimism that currently consumes the K-State locker room will be put to the test shortly.

After all, what would a home game with Kansas be without some sort of streak hanging in the balance?

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