This is quite a welcome change for Kansas State.
Instead of setting out to prove all the experts wrong - as they’ve been doing for about 20 lackluster years - these Wildcats are hoping to prove them right.
Right to say senior point guard Jacob Pullen is All-America timber. Right to predict Kansas State will be the best team in the Big 12. Right in proclaiming that Frank Martin’s program has turned the corner and that a once-proud basketball school has rejoined the elite.
“We’re excited. We’ve made progress every year we’ve been here,” said Martin, whose Wildcats have their highest-ever preseason ranking at No. 3 and open the season Friday night against James Madison. “We look forward to trying to do the same this year.”
Do not be fooled into thinking the loss of three starters from an Elite Eight squad will necessarily signal a downturn. Along with Pullen, a high-scoring playmaker also known for his leadership, the Wildcats return 6-foot-8 Curtis Kelly, who averaged almost 12 points and seven rebounds last year, and highly touted 6-foot-9 sophomore Wally Judge.
Judge’s somewhat disappointing freshman season may have been due to a congenital spinal condition which was corrected in surgery over the summer.
Added to the mix are experienced, accomplished backups such as 6-7 Jamar Samuels, and a 6-10 wide-body transfer named Freddy Asprilla who will provide the inside muscle to a team that fell one win shy of last year’s Final Four. Also inside will be 7-foot sophomore Jordan Henriquez-Roberts.
Kansas State is optimistic about the emergence of Rodney McGruder, a 6-foot-5 sophomore shooting guard who made all five of his 3-point attempts and scored 18 points in a recent exhibition game.
With Denis Clemente gone, Pullen will need another scoring threat in the backcourt to keep defenses from double-teaming him all the time.
“Rodney making shots like that, you can’t double inside, double on ball screens or me or anything like that,” Pullen said. “It spreads the floor. We’re going to be a post team. We’re going to get the ball inside to Freddy, Jordan, Curtis, Wally, Jamar. We’ve got a lot of options down there when Rodney is shooting the ball like that.”
As a junior, Pullen led Kansas State with almost 20 points a game and broke the school record with 110 3-pointers and 67 steals. Within reach of the Chicago native are several other career records.
“I’ve always been a fan of Jacob Pullen,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks are ranked at No. 7. “Everything you want in a player, Jacob has. He’s a tremendous leader.”
Pullen’s teammates are ready to follow their senior point guard wherever he leads.
“He’s a great teammate, a great motivator,” said Judge. “You see somebody who basically this year has a team on his shoulder, in a way. That’s what people expect, but he never lets it get to him.”
The Wildcats are hoping for big things out of their new big man. Asprilla, who worked hard to lose weight during the offseason, averaged almost 14 points and 10 rebounds in one season at Florida International. He had nine points and snared a game-high 13 rebounds in one exhibition game.
“Freddy is a grown man. He’s played college basketball at the Division I level,” said Martin. “He understands a lot of things about the game at the college level. He gives us something we haven’t had offensively. If he can learn to defend … he can become a heck of a player. Offensively, he’s real good.”
Martin insists he’s not worried that great expectations will put a drag on his team. The top rung of the ladder is what he’s been working toward since taking over from Bob Huggins in 2006.
“It’s all about winning,” he said. “But the importance should be on all the things that happen before the game. The experiences, the conversations, the practice time, the preparation, the weight room sessions. Everything that takes place before the game. You either prepare to go win that game or you don’t.”
Pullen has a pithy way of summing up the Wildcats.
“We’re legit,” he said.
This will be Kansas State’s first meeting against James Madison, which went 13-20 last season after finishing 21-15 in 2008-09 for its first winning campaign in nine seasons.
Forward Denzel Bowles was named to the preseason all-Colonial Athletic Association first team after averaging conference highs of 20.8 points and 9.2 rebounds last season.