TUCSON, Ariz. – Turns out the poisonous cheeseburger never existed. Kansas State fans were ready to find the restaurant that served Jacob Pullen the tainted meat that supposedly caused him to miss practice on the eve of the NCAA tournament with a fever and tear the place beam by beam. The entire story turned out apocryphal, and all K-State had to blame was the stupid flu.
The good thing about the flu, of course, is that it can abate quickly. And it did so just in time for Pullen to summon up enough energy to drop 22 points, catalyze the Wildcats' 73-68 victory over Utah State on Thursday night and secure himself a grudge match of which he could only dream.
It's been three years now since Pullen joined Michael Beasley and Bill Walker to form a dynamic – and unlikely – freshman class in middle-of-nowhere Kansas. Beasley and Walker left Manhattan following the 72-55 throttling in the second round of the NCAA tournament that year. Pullen stuck around, built the program with new coach Frank Martin and the tournament gift-wrapped him a nice piece of symmetry: Wisconsin, round two, one more time, this one with his college career on the line.
Flu? What flu?
"When it comes to basketball, I put the way I feel aside," Pullen said. "It's about winning games and continuing to be able to have a season right now."
Pullen's fever dipped Thursday morning, a huge relief in hindsight because, as Martin said, "If he had a fever, he wouldn't have been cleared." K-State without Pullen is an NIT team – and that's being kind. When Pullen missed three games earlier this season for taking extra benefits from a local clothing store, the Wildcats lost against UNLV, and that defeat started a month-long drought in which they began the Big 12 season 1-4.
The team that went to the Elite Eight last year looked lost and in danger of flaming out. Pullen pulled his teammates together, taking the brunt of the scoring load, playing All-Big 12-caliber defense, leading by example and voice. Playing 37 minutes the day after a fever that topped 100 exhibited the former, and his on-court exhortations showed he wasn't too zapped to do the latter.
"He didn't have energy," Martin said. "He tried. … In the second half he just didn't have that energy to sit down and guard, and his teammates didn't help him. And that's what aggravated me."
Granted, it doesn't take much. Utah State cut a 13-point lead to six in the second half, and Martin's eyes bulged like a cartoon character's. Even after the victory, he told CBS: "It's a joke. We were lucky to win." He went further during his press conference: "We got no chance against Wisconsin if we can't play two halves better on Saturday."
The Badgers' methodical style runs in contrast with Pullen's push-push-push sentiment. They're significantly bigger than the Wildcats, and Pullen learned that the hard way three years ago when Greg Stiemsma, Wisconsin's monster center, flattened Pullen on a screen. It shook him good, and in 22 minutes, Pullen managed as many fouls as he did points (four).
Stiemsma is gone. So is Trevon Hughes. Jon Leuer, Wisconsin's star big man these days, played one minute in that game. Jordan Taylor, the guard who will oppose Pullen in perhaps the single best one-on-one matchup of Round 2, was busy winning Mr. Basketball in Minnesota as a senior in high school. Just because it's different names, of course, makes no matter. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's style doesn't change, and Pullen needs to recharge his worn-down body within 48 hours, because more of those screens are coming.
"If he was a freshman, I'd be worried," Martin said. "But he is a big boy now. He is still young by age, but he is a big boy. One thing about Jake is when that bell sounds, he is going to be there. He's also one of those kids that doesn't forget stuff. I guarantee you deep down inside he remembers that Wisconsin ended his freshman year. …
"He'll be good. He'll be ready. He'll be a lot better Saturday. I'll be surprised if he's not."
It's like Pullen himself said: In March, it's different. Things go good. Things go bad. And it's no use paying attention to either.
"You just got to find a way to have one more point than the other team," he said.
Kansas State found a way to have five more than Utah State, and now the Wildcats find themselves with a chance to exact revenge. They don't want to screw it up, and so as they study and prepare for Wisconsin, they ought to adhere by just one rule.
No cheeseburgers. Just in case.