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Any coach will tell you no season unfolds as originally planned. As a team evolves, or devolves in some cases, reshuffling, reteaching and rethinking is constant in an attempt to remedy problems and maximize on-court production.
If results aren’t immediately seen, the backlash is often harsh. Demands intensify. Pressure increases. Sleep is lost. Some get out the kitchen. Others stay to prepare a five-course meal. Suffice it to say, college coaches, though handsomely paid, have a thankless job.
Kansas State’s Frank Martin can certainly sympathize.
Back in December, the Wildcats trotted onto the floor at Gallagher Iba Arena with heads held high. Despite not living up to its lofty preseason ranking (No. 3), the Big 12 contender was still highly regarded by hoop analysts. With notable wins against Virginia Tech, Gonzaga and at Washington St., the ‘Cats were well on their way to challenging arch-rival Kansas and surprising Texas for conference superiority.
But when the final buzzer sounded in Stillwater, everything suddenly changed. K-State’s 14-point loss at Oklahoma State sent the school reeling. Over the next month, it dropped five of seven, including a 24-point drubbing at the hands of the hated Jayhawks. By late January, it was out of the rankings and off the radar.
As the Ls mounted, tension in the K-State locker room heightened. Sophomore Wally Judge, who started in 11 games, quit the team. Optimism that had enveloped Manhattan just weeks before was replaced with uncertainty. Some dark entity had taken a bite out of the Little Apple. Jacob Pullen was resolute his “last go-around” wouldn’t end in the NIT, but most felt a Final Four run, let alone a tourney berth, was farfetched. However, as Martin soon realized, a turnaround was one roll-of-the-dice away. From the Associated Press:
At 0-2 in the Big 12 and with post players deserting his program, Martin changed to more of a spread attack.
There was no way to know how quickly, or how well, the team would adapt …
"It takes dribble responsibility away from guys and it allows postups on slices and cuts," Martin said. "We don't have a single post guy we can throw it in there and expect him to score against other peoples' big guys all the time. So it just made a lot of sense."
"It's cut down on our turnovers," said Martin. "It's helped us in taking better shots and I think the thing it's done best for us is move Jacob around. Jacob doesn't stand around. The ball's not just in his hands. Therefore, people can't just scheme to guard him. They've got to guard the offense. then all of a sudden, here he comes."
The gamble paid off. K-State claimed eight victories over its last 10, including marquee wins against Kansas, Missouri and Texas, in Austin.
Although the ‘Cats were bounced in Round 1 of the Big 12 Conference Tourney, they are a dangerous sleeper. Martin is a drill sergeant who could motivate a stoner to run a marathon. His intensity and toughness – he is expected to pace the sidelines just days removed from arthroscopic knee surgery – has rubbed off on his pupils. K-State induces several turnovers, commands the glass (4th in OR%) and is difficult to score against in the post. Ranked 26th nationally in defensive efficiency, it’s allowed just 0.91 points per possession. If Pullen, who has surpassed 20 points 15 times this year, and lane cog Curtis Kelly can rise to the occasion, this is a team capable of meeting its preseason expectations. Pittsburgh, Florida and BYU, its biggest challengers in the Southeast Region, matchup favorably, assuming it gets past a scary Utah St. team.
John Wooden once said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” Left for dead less than 60 days ago, Kansas State, thanks to Martin’s willingness to adapt, is one hot streak away from Houston.
Here are five additional Shocker Specials capable of bloodying brackets:
BELMONT BRUINS– 30-4, 13-seed – Southeast, Vs. RPI Top-50: 0-3, SOS: 261
Why they shock: For the less prestigious Bruins, a pumpkin carriage awaits. Arguably the most dangerous mid-major representative in the lower half of the field, Belmont stormed through the Atlantic Sun, posting a 21-1 record. Though it faced feeble competition in league play, non-conference action offered more respectable challenges. The little engine nearly upended SEC darlings Tennessee (twice) and Vanderbilt. Balanced across the board – the Bruins check in at No. 32 in offensive efficiency and No. 19 in defensive efficiency – this club isn't a cupcake. They contest shots, attack the offensive glass and can beat you a variety of ways, particularly from three. Guards Ian Clark and Jordan Campbell have outstanding, accurate range. The duo has combined to shoot 43.5 percent behind the arc. Belmont draws Wisconsin, a superb offensive team that has performed, uncharacteristically, sketchy defensively, checking in at No. 64 in D-efficiency. More importantly, the Badgers are one of the worst teams defending the three-ball in the country (315th nationally). If the Bruins splish the dish and push tempo, they will move on.
Prediction: Third Round loss to Kansas St.
MICHIGAN ST. SPARTANS – 19-14, 10-seed - Southeast, Vs. RPI Top-50: 5-10, SOS: 11
Why they shock: One year removed from their fifth Final Four appearance since2000, the Spartans barely crept into the field. Suspensions, nagging injuries,inexplicable underachievement (*cough* Durrell Summers) and puzzling left Tom Izzo grayer and often speechless. No team has endured more turmoil. Still, the only month on the legendary coach's calendar is March. Despite limited depth, turnover problems and suspect three-point defense (273rd nationally), Sparty will rise to the occasion. Kalin Lucas is again playing like an All-American guard. Meanwhile, tweener Draymond Green has emerged as a versatile producer. If Summers can rediscover his stroke and his teammates match the defensive intensity exuded against Purdue in the Big Ten Tourney, the Spartans make their annual run. Eliminate an overrated UCLA team in Round 1, and they have favorable odds of bouncing Florida. Not even Tim Tebow could save the Gators. Their lack of interior defense would be greatly exploited by the Spartans.
Prediction: Elite 8 loss to Kansas St.
MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES – 20-14, 11-seed - East, Vs. RPI Top-50: 5-13, SOS: 29
Why they shock: The Selection Committee served the Golden Eagles a cold dose of shaft, granting them an under-served 11-seed. Marquette is an aggressive, slashing team that poses matchup problems for most. Darius Johnson-Odom, Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder are highly efficient scorers that love to run and play undaunted. Overall, the Eagles average 1.15 points per possession, the 20th-best output on the college hardwood. Generous defensively from three (272nd in 3PT%) and relatively ineffective on the defensive glass, they certainly have issues clamping down. If Crowder can stay out of foul trouble and the Eagles compete on the boards, they could sneak by Xavier. Keep in mind, the Musketeers have difficulties scoring the money-ball, shooting a lowly 33.3 percent from three. Push tempo and attack the rim, and Marquette will clash with familiar foe, Syracuse, in Round 3.
Prediction: Third round loss to Syracuse
USC TROJANS – 19-14, 11-seed Play-in - Southwest, Vs. RPI Top-50: 5-5, SOS: 39
Why they shock: Creeping into the field after a strong finish, the Trojans enter the tournament playing their best basketball of the season. Cursory “experts”will immediately write them off based on their three pre-conference losses to teams ranked outside the RPI top-200. But it’s important to note that leading assist-man Jio Fontan was not in uniform during those missteps. USC isn’t good defensively, it’s great. Interior conquerors Nikola Vukevic and Alex Stephenson have played stellar post defense, winning numerous battles on the glass. Their offensive play has shined, too. The pair has combined for 31 double-doubles this year. Missed free throws have plagued them, but the Trojans are a surging team many don’t want to face. If SC can stave off pesky VCU in Dayton, which shouldn't be a problem considering its massive size advantage, a second-round date with Georgetown would be in the offing. Minus point-man Chris Wright, the Hoyas have gone south in a hurry. Though the senior guard is expected back for the Dance, there is no guarantee he will contribute fully. Win the battle inside against the Hoyas, and USC could spring the upset.
Prediction: Third round loss to Purdue
OLD DOMINION MONARCHS – 24-7, 9-seed - Southeast, Vs. RPI Top-50: 6-4, SOS: 64
Why they shock: The Monarchs, who. punched their second-consecutive Dance ticket by fending off feisty VCU, aren't a bunch of stuttering kings. Unyielding defensively, ODU typically employs a 2-3 zone, ascheme that’s held opponents under 43 percent inside the arc. Long andathletic, Frank Hassell and friends are physically intimidating down low, hammering the boards with considerable ferocity. On the season, the Monarchs are No. 1 nationally inoffensive rebound percentage. Viable long-distance teams will pose a problem,but the Monarchs are battle-tested and very prepared. Recall they defeated Clemson, Xavier and Richmond and nearlyknocked off Georgetownin pre-conference play. Butler is an even matchup, but if they challenge shots on the perimeter and induce whistles on Matt Howard, which isn't hard to do, they are capable of outmuscling top-seeded Pittsburgh. Keep in mind, opponents have netted 50.6 percent of their shots inside the arc against the Panthers.
Prediction: Sweet 16 loss to Kansas St.
Other Rip Van Winkles: Richmond (vs. Vanderbilt), Bucknell (vs. UConn), Wofford (vs. BYU)
TOURNEY TIDBITS• No. 12 seeds have bounced No. 5 seeds 38.6 percent of the time since 2000. In the second round No. 12s are 18-17 (51.4%) all-time.
• A No. 16 has never defeated a No. 1, though Alonzo Mourning still wakes up in cold sweats about Princeton&
• Since 2000, No. 13 seeds have surived the opening round in just 22.7 percent of its attempts; No. 14s 6.8 percent.
• No. 15 seeds are 1-43 in opening round games since 2000; 4-100 all-time.
• Notable mid-majors' tourney win percentage since 2000: West Coast (47.1%), Atlantic 10 (45.1%), Missouri Valley (37.1%), Colonial (35.0%), WAC (34.5%), Mountain West (27.8%)
Images courtesy of AP/US Presswire