Four months after he was tapped as a preseason All-American, Jacob Pullen reminded everyone why.
The distinction was easy to forget along the way in what's been a lost season for Kansas State, but the weary Wildcats pulled off an unexpected, vintage performance on Monday night that could potentially again make their season relevant.
Pullen hit five 3-pointers, worked his way to the line for 19 free throw tries and scored a career-high 38 points in an 84-68 upset at home over Kansas, who was minted as the No. 1 team in the land roughly eight hours earlier.
Welcome back to the conversation, K-State.
"It was one of those nights when the ball went in for me," Pullen humbly said afterwards. "It's a feeling I only had once in my life, and it's a great feeling. It's something I thought about last night when I was sleeping. It's something that's been on my mind for a long time."
The feeling Pullen referred to was the afterglow of an 84-75 victory over Kansas at Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 30, 2008. That was the night when, as a quiet freshman, he emerged from the shadows of star teammates Michael Beasley and Bill Walker to score 20 points in the Cats' first victory at home over their in-state rival since 1983.
The court-storming after that landmark win was a celebration of K-State's arrival into the big-time. On Monday, a similar post-game scene looked like a giant, purple sigh of relief.
The win bumped the Wildcats, who were ranked No. 3 to start the season, to 17-9 overall and 5-6 in the Big 12. It made them again a solid contender for an NCAA tournament berth, and gave Frank Martin's team the marquee victory it severely lacked up until now.
But hold up before you label K-State as a March sleeper, or the most dangerous potential double-digit seed in the field of 68. The Cats are not quite out of the woods just yet.
Instead, with their first win against an RPI Top 50 opponent, they've set themselves up nicely for a five-game stretch to close the season that includes three winnable games against Oklahoma, Missouri and Iowa State, then trips to face Nebraska and maybe-soon-to-be-top-ranked Texas.
"My teammates never gave up hope," Pullen added. "A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people write us off, and we just come in the gym every day with the same attitude, that we got to get better."
No one was off-base in writing them off before Monday, though.
Two key post players — starter Freddy Asprilla and promising sophomore Wally Judge — left the team in the middle of the season. Pullen and senior forward Curtis Kelly were suspended in late December for receiving improper benefits from a local department store. Frank Martin's frustration and anger have been clearly visible all along.
But, performances such as Monday's were something K-State was still physically capable of, regardless of the past.
And Pullen finally played the role of the senior ringleader to perfection.
Of his 38 points, 23 came in the first half, with K-State heading into the break up by nine. He earned four of them on veteran savvy alone, drawing shooting fouls off of shot-fakes on both Tyshawn Taylor and Brady Morningstar.
He shot when he needed to, but also got others involved, playing like the true point guard that Martin and his staff hoped he'd be to start the season, when he moved over from the other side of the back-court to replace the graduated Denis Clemente.
A couple of Pullen's buckets against Kansas's ripe-for-the-shredding defense drew some interesting reactions from coach Bill Self, who viewers at home saw in a small window embedded by ESPN on the left side of the screen for much of the night.
"Our play against him was very poor and he was terrific tonight," Self said. "I'll tell you this: I don't know that kid very well, but he's got 38 (points) playing on national TV against a team that doesn't deserve it, but is ranked No. 1 in the country, their arch-rival, and he defers not to shoot the ball to get 40. Class. That kid had it going tonight."
It was a complete change of the script from Kansas State's embarrassing 90-66 loss at Kansas on Jan. 29. Pullen scored most of his forgettable 21 points at Allen Fieldhouse with the game out of reach in the second half and the Cats looking like a team ready to head home for the summer.
Now, he's given himself something to play for again, and he might not have to suck it up and eat those anti-NIT words from last month after all.
- Frank Martin