MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP)—Frank Martin doesn’t mince words. Even if it’s sometimes to his detriment, the Kansas State coach is going to tell the truth as he sees it.
So not long after the Wildcats wrapped up a physically draining win over Missouri, Martin turned his attention to Wednesday’s titanic game against rival Kansas and gave his players this blunt assessment: “Kansas becomes the biggest game we’ve ever played at K-State.”
Faced with one of the biggest games in program history, most coaches would try to downplay the significance, worried how the added pressure would come down on 18-to-22-year-old players.
The volcanic coach wants his players to understand exactly what they’re facing. Wants them embrace the pressure. Wants them to be ready for the reward on the other side.
Martin has, after all, prepared them for this moment since the day they arrived in the Little Apple, through all those demanding practices, the screaming, those us-against-the-world speeches.
Martin told his players the truth about Wednesday’s game because he knows they can handle it.
“Telling them this is the biggest game they’ve played, why is that negative pressure?” Martin said. “I look at as great pressure, that their hard work has paid off, that they’ve put themselves in that conversation that something great can happen to this basketball team.”
It should be a great game either way, maybe one of the best in the 113-year history of the Sunflower Showdown.
The buildup was the same for their last meeting on Jan. 30, when Kansas pulled out a taut, 81-79 overtime win in a well-played game at rowdy Bramlage Coliseum.
The stakes will be even higher this time at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.
Kansas (27-2, 13-1) is ranked second and Kansas State (24-4, 11-3) is No. 5, marking the first time since 1958—when coach Tex Winter led the Wildcats and Wilt Chamberlain played center for the Jayhawks—the teams are both in the top 5.
Kansas has already earned a share of its sixth straight Big 12 regular-season championship and has the nation’s longest home winning streak at 58 games. The Jayhawks had a chance to clinch the Big 12 title outright Saturday against Oklahoma State, but were a step slow all day in a seven-point loss.
That, combined with Kansas State’s gritty 63-53 win over Missouri, left a crack for the Wildcats to earn a tie for the title. Kansas State has won seven straight since the loss to Kansas and won’t be intimidated by playing the Jayhawks at their place.
To get that tie,the Wildcats will still need to beat Iowa State and have the Jayhawks lose at Missouri on Saturday, but it’s still a chance—and they’re taking it seriously.
“There’ll be a lot at stake,” Kansas guard Sherron Collins said.
And emotion, particularly for Collins.
The senior will be making his final appearance at Allen Fieldhouse, the place where he transformed from a shy-but-talented kid from the rough streets of Chicago into the face of one of the nation’s premier programs.
The confident floor leader won’t leave as the schools all-time leader in points, assists or rebounds. But as the tears flow through the Phog Wednesday night, Collins will leave with a legacy of winning, more than any other player in Kansas’ storied history.
“He came into this situation really needing a place to change his thought process and to mold him into what he could potentially become,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “To see how this place has changed him, and how he has allowed this place to change him, it’s a pretty neat story if you really study it.”
Last game for one of best players in Kansas history? Yeah, that’s going to make it even more difficult for Martin and the Wildcats.
So what, they say.
Martin worked his way out of the tough streets of Miami’s Little Havana with a don’t-tell-me-I-can’t-do-something attitude and has infused it into his players. The Wildcats have bought into it fully and welcome pressure instead of looking away.
“It’s not about making things easy. You make things easy, you’re cheating them,” Martin said. “You’ve got to make them difficult. You’ve got to be real with them. You’ve got to be honest with them. Life is about pressure. If you can’t handle pressure, you’re going to have a hard life.”
The next step is Wednesday night.