Kansas State believes a talented freshman class and a rookie coach can lead to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 12 seasons. Preseason poll voters seem to think so, too.
The No. 25 Wildcats open a season as a ranked team for the first time in more than three decades when they host Sacramento State on Friday.
As coach Bob Huggins took over the program last year, Kansas State finished 23-12 for its first 20-win season since going 20-13 in 1998-99. The Wildcats finished fourth in the Big 12 and reached the second round of the NIT, losing to DePaul.
It was the first postseason for the Wildcats since the 1999 NIT, but now they are looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.
Coming off last season’s success and boasting one of the nation’s top recruits in 6-foot-10 Michael Beasley, expectations for 2007-08 remain high even after Huggins left to coach his alma mater, West Virginia.
The school’s administration didn’t waste much time giving Huggins’ assistant, Frank Martin, his first college head coaching job. That decision resulted in Beasley, the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game, and the rest of the recruiting class choosing to honor their commitments to Kansas State.
A direct result was Kansas State getting its first preseason Top 25 ranking since 1975-76. This is the first time the Wildcats have been ranked at any point since 1993.
However, the Wildcats won’t have it easy in a conference that features three other ranked teams - No. 4 Kansas, No. 15 Texas and No. 16 Texas A&M. Kansas State was picked fourth in the conference’s preseason media poll.
“That’s why relying on freshmen is always such a tough task to compete at a high level like the Big 12,” said Martin, who coached high school basketball in Miami for 16 years before joining Huggins at Cincinnati. “I’m also very excited about the progress we’ve made. I’m excited about the players we’ve got, their enthusiasm, their fearlessness, and their desire to continue to grow.
“If you look at any team that I’ve ever been associated with, and you ask anybody that was a part of that, they’ll tell you that I have incredible passion for succeeding.”
The Wildcats are poised to succeed with players like Beasley and 6-6 redshirt freshman Bill Walker, a former top recruit who averaged 11.3 points in six games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Beasley was considered the top recruit in the nation coming out of Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts, and backed it up with 35 points, 15 rebounds, six steals, four assists and four blocks in the Wildcats’ exhibition win over Division II Fort Hays State on Saturday.
“There is a reason that we worked as hard as we did in recruiting him,” Martin said of Beasley, who has drawn comparisons to recent Big 12 star Kevin Durant. “Offensively he is a very efficient basketball player. He understands how to play.”
Jacob Pullen, a projected starter at point guard, versatile guard Fred Brown and 6-8 Ron Anderson join Beasley to make up what could become the greatest freshman class in school history.
Seniors David Hoskins, the team’s top returning scorer at 14.5 points per game, and guard Clent Stewart are again expected to be key contributors.
“We have a lot of good athletes,” Hoskins said. “I think it is going in the right direction.”
In facing Sacramento State for the first time, Kansas State looks to win its 19th consecutive regular-season home game over a non-conference opponent dating to a 76-66 loss to Rutgers on Dec. 28, 2004.
Sacramento State lost four of its top five scorers from last season’s 10-19 team that finished ninth in the 10-team Big Sky.
Junior Loren Leath averaged 12.8 points last season and is expected to lead the Hornets’ three-guard lineup that helped the school average 75.6 points in 2006-07.
The Hornets are 0-9 against Top 25 opponents.