OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—Frank Martin doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. Just ask him.
That us-against-the-world attitude? Just part of getting through life.
No matter how he couches it, the Kansas State coach thrives on the underdog role and uses it for motivation, to prove everyone wrong.
And that chip, the one that’s supposedly not there, it’s transferred over to his players, made them feel like they’re still up against the world, even as they enter the NCAA tournament as favorites for once.
“It (the chip) remains,” Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen said Wednesday.
Kansas State (26-7) is coming off one of the best seasons in school history, one that includes a school-record for wins in the regular season and a No. 2 seed in the West regional, its highest ever.
When the Wildcats open the NCAA tournament Thursday against No. 15 North Texas (24-8), they’ll do it with most everyone expecting them to win. Not just against the Mean Green, either.
Kansas State has become a trendy pick to reach the Final Four, even earning a spot in Indianapolis on President Barack Obama’s bracket.
Long, athletic, relentless, experienced, with one of the best backcourts in college basketball, the Wildcats aren’t the same team that lost in the second round of the 2008 NCAA tournament. They don’t have Michael Beasley or Bill Walker, but they have confidence and they’re favorites still playing the underdog card, which could be a dangerous combination for any opponent.
“My plan is, and the people who are with me, we’re going to work our tails off, do our jobs the right way and do it better every single day,” Martin said. “That’s the way I try to operate.”
North Texas set a school record with 24 wins and won the Sun Belt tournament by beating top-seeded Troy to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years. Now that they’re there, the Mean Green need to find a win; they haven’t in three all-time NCAA appearances.
Doing it against Kansas State won’t be easy.
North Texas can be sloppy, finishing the season with 83 more turnovers than assists. Kansas State’s forte is getting easy baskets off its relentless pressure, so the Mean Green could be in for a long day if they have another careless game.
“They play real hard,” North Texas guard Josh White said. “They pressure the ball, so it’s going to be a pretty tough challenge for us.”
Junior Collin Mangrum will the only player in North Texas history to play in two NCAA tournament games, though he only played a minute against Memphis as a freshman.
This is a veteran bunch, though. North Texas’ top six scorers are upperclassmen and the Mean Green played most of the season as favorites in their league, gaining confidence with each step toward the NCAA tournament.
The Mean Green won’t be an intimidated Cinderella.
“We’ve had more success than not, so they’ve really bought in and it’s a lot easier selling that point than not,” said North Texas coach Johnny Jones, in his ninth season in Denton.
Of course, the Mean Green are facing another master salesman, one who’s peddling fists full of attitude.
Martin grew up on the tough streets of Miami’s Little Havana and clawed toward the top, putting his name in the conversation for national coach of the year—he already won the Big 12 award—three years after being called nothing more than a baby sitter for Beasley.
That go-ahead-and-tell-me-I’m-wrong approach has become ingrained in Kansas State’s players, not just because their coach is that way, but because it was already a part of them. Martin recruited them because of the chip on their shoulders, nurtured it until it won’t fall off, and has now turned them into favorites—even if they’re not ready to admit it yet.
“There’s a total commitment to doing things the right way with our kids and our program,” Martin said. “That’s why I’m so proud for our kids because they’re being rewarded for all their hard work.”