Kansas State playing for respect
OKLAHOMA CITY – The day before they attempted to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988, the Kansas State Wildcats nearly lost a player to an injury.
Not because of something that happened on the court.
But off of it.
“Owwww!” guard Chris Merriewether screamed as he burst out of an interview scrum Friday. “One of those reporters just stepped on my foot!”
Merriewether limped away from the pack while the rest of his teammates answered questions for 40 minutes in a locker room crammed with media members from across the country. It was a chaotic scene for a school that’s appeared in just one NCAA tournament in the last 14 years. Not that anyone was complaining.
“The attention,” forward Jamar Samuels, “is nice.”
And it also will be over if Kansas State doesn’t defeat Brigham Young in Saturday’s second-round game at the Ford Center.
That’s what is so brutal about the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats, 27-7, are fresh off one of the best regular seasons in program history. Kansas State was ranked as high as No. 5 in the Associated Press poll and finished in a tie for second in the Big 12 standings. Frank Martin received serious consideration for National Coach of the Year.
Still, even though they elevated their status in their league and gained respect from those that follow the program closely, the Wildcats are still viewed as a question mark on a national level.
The public judges teams on how they finish in NCAA tournament, which means beating BYU on Saturday and advancing to the Sweet 16 is the only way to legitimize their success to the rest of the country.
Fair or not, it all comes down to this.
“Actually,” junior guard Jacob Pullen said, “I think we need to go even further than the Sweet 16. For people to really respect us, we need to go to the Elite Eight or the Final Four so that people will understand that Frank and everything he’s doing here is the real deal.”
In some ways it’s a shame that Kansas State feels it needs to win two or three games in the tournament to prove its worth. The postseason is about upsets and heroes and brackets and seeds and sports bars and “One Shining Moment.” There may not be anything better in all of sports.
But only one team wins, and only four schools from the 65-team field advance to the final weekend.
That shouldn’t mean the regular-season accomplishments of the other 61 schools should be diminished – especially not the ones achieved at Kansas State. Just look at the Wildcats’ resume.
Before Big 12 play began Martin’s squad had defeated Xavier, UNLV, Washington State, Dayton and Alabama. Then Kansas State went 11-5 in the Big 12, the nation’s top RPI conference.
The Wildcats were the first team to defeat then-No. 1 Texas. They slaughtered NCAA tournament teams Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Missouri and upended nationally-ranked Baylor – twice.
“When you talk about the Big 12, it’s not just all about Kansas and Texas,” junior Dominique Sutton said. “You have to throw Kansas State in that mix now.”
Especially considering the support Wildcats’ fans continue to shower on their team. With the school’s football program struggling, Kansas State basketball has become the hot ticket in Manhattan. Bramlage Coliseum sells out regularly and even earned its own nickname: The Octagon of Doom.
For big games on those special nights, there isn’t a more intimidating home court in the Big 12.
Martin was given a contract extension earlier this month, a well-deserved reward for building a nationally-competitive program that actually improved following the departure of 2008 NBA draft picks Michael Beasley and Bill Walker.
Still, while the Wildcats’ story is well known throughout the Midwest, it takes something like the NCAA tournament to truly put Kansas State on the map. No team is considered a postseason success until it advances to the Sweet 16.
“If we lose [to BYU] and [people] don’t respect us or talk good about us, we won’t care,” Sutton said. “What people say about us means nothing to us. It’ll just be motivation for us to go out and work hard and prove them all wrong.”