MANHATTAN, Kan. – For Jacob Pullen, the most memorable moments of Michael Beasley's All-American season at Kansas State didn't occur on the court.
They happened at Applebee's.
Time and time again in the spring of 2008, the two teammates would attempt to slip into the Manhattan restaurant for a nice, quiet meal and conversation. Pullen learned quickly, though, that it's tough to go unnoticed when you're rolling with an All-American and the eventual No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
"The minute we'd sit down to eat," Pullen said, "people started lining up for Mike's autograph. Word would spread that we were there and people would show up with pictures and basketballs. They'd wait an hour until we got done eating, and then he'd just start signing."
The bearded Pullen is all the rage in Manhattan.
(Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)
"The whole time I kept thinking, 'Man, that must be the life,'" he said.
Two years later, Pullen is adapting to his moment in the limelight.
Kansas State basketball posters featuring Pullen hang in restaurants and hotels near campus. Reporters and photographers flock to him like paparazzi during postgame interviews, and students wear shirts that say, "Fear the Beard," in reference to the scruff that's been growing since August on Pullen's cheeks and chin.
For Monday's game against Texas, Wildcats officials plan to distribute fake beards to fans at Bramlage Coliseum. The thought of thousands of people sporting fake facial hair to honor him makes Pullen snicker.
"I guess I better not shave it before Monday," he told a friend before Thursday's practice.
Just as it was with his former teammate, the hoopla surrounding Pullen is certainly well-deserved. Even though he doesn't project as a future NBA lottery pick, Pullen has done just as much – if not more – for Kansas State's program than Beasley, who's in his second season with the Miami Heat.
A 6-foot guard from Chicago, Pullen is averaging a team-high 19.8 points for the Wildcats, who were ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press poll for the first time in 35 years before dropping to No. 12 following Saturday's loss to Missouri.
With a 14-2 record and a game against national title contender Texas just days away, folks in Manhattan can't stop talking about Kansas State basketball. In some ways the excitement is similar to the buzz that hovered over the program two years ago, when Beasley and second-round draft pick Bill Walker led the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament win in 20 years.
That team, though, was defined by two players. Even as a starter, Pullen felt like an afterthought.
"I was a sidekick," he said, laughing. "I was Robin. Actually, I was Robin's sidekick. I was a sidekick's sidekick."
Pullen turned serious.
"Now we're all about balance," he said. "We take pride in being a team."
Still, every group needs a leader, and there's no question Pullen serves that role for the Wildcats. It's a task he's been groomed for from the moment he and Beasley set foot on campus back in the fall of 2007, when he continuously drew the ire of coach Frank Martin during practices and games.
"Frank yelled at Jacob more than anyone on the team," senior forward Chris Merriewether said. "He was on him every day."
At times Pullen wasn't sure how to take Martin's tough love approach. He had had coaches ride him in the past, but never like this.
"For awhile I thought, 'This man hates me,' " Pullen said.
Actually, it was just the opposite.
The first time Martin saw Pullen play in a summer event, he had come off the bench and air-balled his first shot. Then, on the very next possession, Pullen shot another 3-pointer – and this one swished through the net.
"Confident kid," Martin thought.
The coach's opinion of Pullen grew even higher when he visited with him in his living room in Maywood, Ill., about 15 miles west of Chicago. Pullen is the youngest of four children, but Martin said you could hardly tell as he interacted with his parents and siblings that evening.
"He's the baby of the family, yet he commanded more attention than anyone in the room," Martin said. "People migrate to Jake. He's got an unbelievable personality, which is what you want in a point guard."
Martin – a former Wildcats assistant who took over when Bob Huggins left for West Virginia – could see then that Pullen had all the on-court tools and personality traits to lead Kansas State's team. But only if he was willing to work.
Pullen started 14 games as a freshman and finished third on the team in scoring with 9.7 points per game. Martin, though, wasn't satisfied. Beasley and Walker may have been the stars, but Martin wanted Pullen to be the leader.
Pullen has the Wildcats looking good a for deep NCAA tournament run.
(Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)
"Jake was a baby when he first got here," Martin said. "He was 17 years old and he was too willing to defer. Mike and Bill were the so-called big names, so he was hesitant to get in the huddle and say, 'I'm the point guard here. You're going to run what I tell you to run.' That's what we wanted him to do."
So Martin stayed on him.
"I wasn't naïve," he said. "Bill Walker and Michael Beasley were pros. They weren't going to be here long. Kids like Jake were the future of our program. Those were the guys we needed to hang our hat on. They were our future, so we didn't let up."
Looking back on it now, Pullen couldn't be more appreciative.
The Wildcats defeated USC in the first round of the NCAA tournament that season and also snapped a 24-game home losing streak to archrival Kansas in Manhattan. Pullen scored 20 points in that contest and hoped to carry the momentum over into his sophomore season.
Just as it had with Beasley and Walker, Pullen said the pressure to perform at a high level weighed heavily on his shoulders once again.
As a freshman Pullen said he felt he had to do his best to score points to take some of the pressure off of K-State's two stars. He said that often caused him to take ill-advised shots during a season in which he made just 40 percent of his field goal attempts, including only 30 percent from beyond the arc.
Last season, with Beasley and Walker gone, Pullen and Miami transfer Denis Clemente were the only two consistent scoring options for a Wildcats squad that was without a strong post presence. The two players combined to average 28.9 points. Kansas State went 22-12 but failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
"We had a lot of new faces around us that had never really played," Pullen said, "so it was really just me and Clemente. The pressure of having to score every night was difficult. It was tough, because people thought we weren't a good team, and those same people probably wrote me off, too."
What those people didn't witness, though, were the hours upon hours that Pullen was spending at the gym taking extra shots during the summer – or in the film room studying the habits and tendencies of his opponents.
By the time his junior season began last fall, Pullen said he felt like a new player – and Kansas State looked like a completely different team.
Coach Frank Martin has been hard on Pullen.
(Laura Rauch/AP Photo)
"It was just a matter of Frank putting all the pieces together," Pullen said. "We've got so much balance now that there really isn't too much pressure on any one of us to produce.
"Teams last year just ran the triangle-and-two on me and Denis. Teams my freshman year just tried to deny Mike all the time. Now we've got balance and we're starting to take advantage of it."
Indeed, along with Pullen and Clemente (14.9 points), sophomore wing Jamar Samuels (12.2) is starting to hit his stride. Connecticut transfer Curtis Kelly (11.1) has given the Wildcats some quality size down low, and it won't be long before freshman forward Wally Judge, a McDonald's All-American, sees increased minutes.
No one, though, is playing as well as Pullen. The first-team All-Big 12 candidate is shooting 45 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line – all career highs. And it's not as if those numbers have been inflated against weak opponents.
Kansas State has defeated teams such as Xavier, UNLV, Dayton, Alabama and Texas A&M. Its one loss other than Missouri came against Ole Miss. Both defeats were on the road.
Martin said the presence of Clemente has helped Pullen's game.
"Denis has an unbelievable work ethic and will," Martin said of Clemente, last year's leading scorer. "You put that around Jake every single day … it made his work ethic get better. He showed him how hard you have to work every single day."
Pullen agrees. He also credits the competitive spirit he developed as a high school star in Chicago as a reason for his perseverance. Pullen grew up playing AAU and street ball against standouts such as Derrick Rose (Memphis), Sherron Collins (Kansas), Evan Turner (Ohio State), Demetri McCamey (Illinois), Jon Scheyer (Duke), Mustapha Farrakhan (Virginia) and Aaron Johnson (UAB).
"When you play against the best every day," he said, "you can't help but develop confidence."
Pullen has clearly brought that swagger with him to Kansas State. He said Thursday that a Final Four run wasn't out of the question, especially if Kelly can become a consistent inside threat. He also said he thrives on the challenge of rebuilding a program that received little national respect until he first took the court with Beasley and Walker two years ago.
Even though the Wildcats have been ranked as high as No. 10, Pullen said he still doesn't believe people think Kansas State is for real.
"People don't think we’re as good as advertised," Pullen said. "People think we're a façade. Some people may criticize us for having a chip on our shoulder, but that's how we feel. Every time I walk into a locker room, and I see we've moved up a little in the rankings, I say, 'That won't mean anything until we're in the No. 1 spot.'
"We've got to have that swagger. Every day is serious."
Pullen may not feel respected nationally, but there's no doubt his efforts are appreciated in Manhattan. Two years ago, the feeling was that Kansas State would fade back into obscurity after the departures of Beasley and Walker. More than any Wildcat, Pullen has made sure the program did just the opposite.
Kansas State hasn't faded.
Heck, the Wildcats have become better.
Perhaps that's why a group of fans waited patiently for Pullen outside IHOP a few days ago as he and Samuels finished their meal. Just as Beasley did two years before him, Pullen didn't leave the parking lot until every autograph and picture request had been granted.
At one point Pullen took a break from signing and looked over at Samuel, who shook his head.
"Keep working," Pullen said. "and your day will come soon. Trust me."