K-State coach validated with tough win

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports

OMAHA, Neb. – The hug had gone on for 20 seconds, and Tim Weiser still wasn't ready to let Frank Martin go.

Moments earlier Kansas State had its first NCAA tournament win in 20 years. Fans danced in the stands to "Wabash Cannonball." Michael Beasley and Bill Walker granted television interviews on the court while their teammates skipped through the corridors of the Qwest Center, screaming their school's name after an 80-67 victory over USC.

"K-State, baby!" they yelled. "K-State!"

Amid the celebration, Martin – the Wildcats' first-year coach – slipped through the tunnel and walked alongside a security guard down the winding hallway toward the Wildcats' locker room. Standing outside the door was Weiser, the athletic director who hired him.

No words were offered. Instead Weiser just wrapped his arms around Martin and squeezed. The embrace went on for nearly a minute before Weiser relaxed his arms.

"No one thought we could do this," said school president John Wefald, who was standing nearby. "No one."

Actually, no one thought Martin could do this.

He wasn't hired because of a gaudy résumé or because he had a history of on-court success. Heck, before this season, Martin had never been a head coach beyond the high school level.

No, when it came down to it, Martin simply was in the right place at the right time when former coach Bob Huggins resigned last March and headed for West Virginia.

An assistant on Huggins' staff, Martin was awarded the head coaching job for the sole purpose of ensuring that Beasley would honor his letter of intent with Kansas State instead of asking for his release and signing elsewhere.

Martin proved then that he could keep a player. On Thursday he showed he can coach.

Beasley scored 23 points and Walker added 22 in Kansas State's victory Thursday. But make no mistake: The star of the Wildcats' first NCAA tournament victory since 1988 was Martin, who continues to make the most of his learn-on-the-go rookie season.

It's not as if Martin hadn't shone before. The Wildcats finished third in the Big 12 standings and defeated Kansas in Manhattan for the first time in 24 years.

Still, as good as the Wildcats have been they were horrendous at times. That especially was the case during the final month of the regular season. Kansas State entered the NCAA tournament with losses in six of its previous nine contests.

Sure, a few of the setbacks were against NCAA tournament teams such as Kansas, Texas and Texas A&M. But there also were losses to schools in the lower half of the Big 12 such as Missouri, Nebraska and Texas Tech.

Suddenly the Kansas State team that looked unbeatable against Kansas was playing timid and stiff. Standouts such as Walker seemed more concerned with yelling at referees than scoring baskets. Role players who had performed well earlier in the season became nonexistent in the shadow of Beasley.

On the sidelines it often became too much for Martin, who screamed and cursed to the point that his actions drew criticism from newspaper columnists and TV commentators.

"Frank just has this fire in his eyes – it's like nothing I've ever seen," Beasley said. "He just wants to win so bad. That's all he cares about."

That was obvious Thursday, when Martin proved he wasn't too stubborn to make some adjustments in his approach.

Kansas State's game appeared be a mammoth coaching mismatch between Martin and veteran USC coach Tim Floyd, a well-respected X's and O's guy who has NBA experience.

Martin outperformed Floyd on Thursday.

Rather than stomp and scream on the sideline, Martin seemed as relaxed and loose as he has been all season. Rarely did he whine about the officiating, and he chewed out his players only after the gravest of mistakes.

When USC went on a 10-0 run and took the lead in the second half, Martin didn't fidget. He clapped his hands and smiled.

His positive energy apparently had an effect on K-State's players. Other than a Jan. 30 win over Kansas, Thursday's win easily was Kansas State's most impressive performance of the season.

The Wildcats kept USC off balance by alternating between a zone and a menacing man-to-man defense. But the biggest sign of their tenacity came on the boards. Kansas State had 21 offensive rebounds compared to USC's nine. Overall Martin's squad held a 44-27 edge in the battle of the boards.

"We just stopped complaining and stopped wishing for things," Walker said. "Instead we went out there and made things happen. We all bought in to Frank's (approach) these last two practices. It's changed the way we play and given us new life.

"No one picked us to win a game in this tournament. We can play loose, but we have a chip our shoulder."

At its worst, Kansas State is capable of losing to any team in the country. That explains why the Wildcats are the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region despite touting the best player in college basketball in Beasley, who averages 26.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game.

But when Kansas State is at its best, the Wildcats are downright scary. There's no reason this team can't defeat Big Ten champion Wisconsin on Saturday and advance to the Sweet 16.

Along with Beasley and Walker, Kansas State got double-digit scoring performances Thursday from Jacob Pullen and Ron Anderson, a forward who hadn't played more than 13 minutes since December. Freshman Dominique Sutton turned in an outstanding defensive effort on Mayo and point guard Blake Young snared a career-high seven boards.

One week after losing to Texas A&M in the Big 12 tournament, the Wildcats have found the fire – and balance – that they've lacked for nearly two months.

Credit for that should go to Martin, who will face another top-caliber head coach Saturday in Bo Ryan.

Martin, though, wasn't ready to look that far ahead Thursday. He was too busy hugging and celebrating and relishing a night when everything seemed to go perfect.

Well, almost everything.

In his postgame press conference, Martin was defensive when asked about the midseason "slide" that his team experienced in February and early March. Martin blamed losses on injures and off-court issues that kept the team from practicing with a full complement of players.

In other words, he made excuses.

The rant wasn't necessary. After what happened Thursday, Martin and Kansas State don't have any more explaining to do.

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