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October 29, 2008

Pressure is the theme for 2008-09 Cats

Describing Kansas State head basketball coach Frank Martin as assertive is a lot like saying Russian Roulette is a bit risky. The second-year Wildcat head coach eats assertive for a mid-morning snack. Martin is a fighter - an aggressive, alpha personality that has never been one to let life, or anything it brings with it for that matter, come to him, and this year, even more than a season ago, the Wildcats will reflect their fiery coach's personality on the hardwood.

It wasn't long after Martin took the podium at Wednesday's media day that the word "pressure" was first introduced, and as the event wore on, it became clear that the term would describe the approaching season in a multitude of ways.

Pressure, it seems, is everywhere.

It's on Martin, who will be asked to prove last year's success can be sustained without the aid of standouts Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, both of whom can now be seen in NBA arenas. It's on forward Darren Kent, the Wildcats' lone senior, who will be expected to shoulder the majority of his team's leadership responsibilities. And if Martin gets his way, it will be on everybody in an opposing jersey.

"Every player on our team has to be prepared to pressure the basketball because that's how we play," Martin said. "This isn't a point guard-pressure-the-ball system. All five guys on the court are going to pressure the ball and pressure passing lanes. That's how we play"

In just one full season as head coach in Manhattan, if there's one thing Martin has made clear it's that he stands by his word. He assured fans that Beasley would live up to the hype. He guaranteed a home win over Kansas and he wasn't hesitant to promise fans the opportunity to see top-tier talent sign with their university.

Think being selected to finish seventh in the Big 12 bothers head coach Deb Patterson and the Kansas State women's basketball team? After all, the defending Big 12 regular season champions were picked eighth a year ago, and everybody knows how that turned out. So it's not surprising that Patterson and the Wildcats are approaching this season in the same manner as they did 2007, with a touch of bitter humbleness.

"It doesn't matter. We have to look at it as the coaches have 12 great teams that they have to place in some type of order," said senior forward Marlies Gipson. "It's preseason and we'll see how we finish. It can be motivation."

Many thought her size and inconsistency from long range would force her professional career in a year to head overseas, but according to Patterson, senior Shalee Lehning, her team's star point guard, will be selected in next year's WNBA Draft, and the K-State head coach isn't just making empty promises.

According to Patterson, many people from inside the professional league have been in contact with her about the 5-foot-9 Kansas native, making Lehning's future at the next level of American basketball a forgone conclusion.

"I've talked to them. WNBA coaches are definitely interested in Shalee Lehning," she said.

Taking a page from men's basketball coach Frank Martin's book, Patterson made her newcomers unavailable to the media during Wednesday's media gathering.

Freshmen Jenny Gilbertson, Branshea Brown, Alina Voronenko and Jalana Childs, were not present at the event, and a timetable for them to become available to reporters has not been set.

Patterson did say that all four of her incoming freshman have a "long way to go", but expects at least two of them to make their presence felt at some point this season.

"At this time, they aren't anywhere near making an immediate impact," she said. "They will, in time, impact our team in positive ways, but for right now they are definitely young players."

Though some positions on the floor aren't in doubt, Patterson contends she is far from settling in on a starting five for the upcoming season, and fans shouldn't expect anything to be set in stone before Sunday's exhibition game with Washburn.

In fact, the otherwise meaningless game against Lady Blues could end up functioning as a public tryout for playing time.

"I'm not settled at all in permanent positions," Patterson said. "Every day at practice, I'm shuffling people in and out of that first lineup. I'm looking at where we, as a group, perform the best. I really don't have a lineup. I'm really still answering those questions day by day."

He's batting 1.000 so far, so if Martin, whose team set a school for points in a season in 2007, says things on the court this year will be faster and more up-tempo than ever before, what reason does anyone have to doubt him?

"When I talk about pressure, I mean we are going to pressure every ball, every pass, every person with the basketball, every dribble and every shot," Martin, who contends his team is much better defensively than it was a year ago, said. "That's what I mean by pressure."

More pressure on the court means more pressure to perform in the weight room, a place in which Martin says he's placed a humongous amount of added emphasis. After all, conditioning is vital to Martin's desired style of play, and as the head coach so often says, "the weight room doesn't lie."

"We're going to have a lot of energy this year," sophomore Dominique Sutton said. "We have more of a bench this year with returning players and some transfers. We're going to pressure the ball and passing lanes. (Denis Clemente) is very speedy. We know whenever we get the ball we've got to run."

But the pressure doesn't end with Martin's philosophy on Xs and Os.

Failing to live up to the elevated expectations the Wildcats set for themselves a year ago would give critics of the program all the ammunition needed to dismiss what took place in Manhattan last season as a one-year flash due entirely to the short college stays of Beasley and Walker. So while nobody expects this team to duplicate the success is experienced last season, a complete collapse has the potential to become a PR nightmare.

Believe it or not, there's pressure to prove K-State is more than a two-player program.

"The kind of pressure you feel is that you have to step up your role," said Kent, who Martin has frequently praised as one of his team's most improved players. "It's never a bad thing when your coach tells you to score a little bit more."

It's not replacing the 42 points per game that left Manhattan in the hip pockets of Walker and Beasley that worries the coaching staff most, however. They're confident that points will still be there. A lack of defensive rebounding, on the other hand, is this squad's most pressing issue, and more than two weeks before the season opener, Martin is already imaging the headaches to come.

"You guys will probably see it in my face when I walk into press conferences during the year," Martin said. "Games in which we don't defensive rebound, I'll probably look a lot older than on the nights that we do defensive rebound. It's not going to be scoring. It's not going to be anything else. Everyone thinks we were so dependent on Mike (Beasley) scoring the basketball, but the one aspect of the game in which we fully depended on ol' No. 30 was defensive rebounding. He bailed us out of a lot of situations with his ability to go get a rebound. That's the place we will most miss him."

Defensive rebounding, however important it may be, probably isn't the sole reason the Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12's preseason media poll, but when asked for his thoughts on the low preseason projection, Martin, as is his style, didn't approach the question passively.

"People who report that kind of stuff obviously don't know who I am and don't know our players," he said.

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