The rejuvenation of a once strong program is the story of the past few years in college basketball. Kansas State basketball has a storied history including 23 NCAA Tournament berths that resulted in 15 Sweet Sixteen trips, 11 Elite Eight appearances, 4 Final Four battles and 1 trip to a National Title game (a loss to Kentucky in 1951). Since the 1987 season, however, K. State basketball has only made the NCAA Tournament 6 times, and made it out of the first round only once (in 2008), and since 1997, the Wildcats have only 1 NCAA Tournament berth (in 2008).
Many people believe that one NCAA Tournament berth in 2008 was a fluke, because they had the best player in the country Michael Beasley and he carried the team (along with Bill Walker). The Kansas State team had a first year coach in 2008 as well, Frank Martin, who the fans felt was only kept on to retain recruit Beasley and was not a long-term coach, despite his team having 21 wins and finishing 4 games above .500 in the Big 12. With the upset of USC in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2008, more fans began jumping on board, but still felt that once Beasley and Walker left for the NBA, Martin was gone. Not the case, thanks to then athletic director Bob Krause.
During the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons, Martin was heavily recruiting (which was his strength) in an effort to prove his worth, but was also working with his team to build chemistry and cohesion. With another strong 22 win season under his belt, Martin remained the head coach, and would continue to have the opportunity to prove that he was in Manhattan, KS to stay. This season, Denis Clemente, a player Martin personally convinced to transfer to K. State from Miami, has been a senior leader averaging nearly 15 points per game. Along with Clemente, the Wildcats have an incredible scorer in G Jacob Pullen (averaging over 19 points per game). Mix in a few strong big men, including UConn transfer Curtis Kelly, and you have the 9-1 Kansas State team that has risen to it’s highest national ranking since 1988, #17 in the AP poll.
For those who still doubt Martin and K. State’s strength, look at the team numbers. They average over 81 points per game and have balanced scoring (4 players averaging double figures). They have senior leadership at the guard position and have a McDonald All-American freshman forward Wally Judge, who with some experience, could be the next Wildcat star. They already have wins against two top 25 teams, Dayton and UNLV, and a strong double-digit win against a tough Xavier team. Their only loss was to a strong 9-1 Ole Miss team in late November in a game that was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Kansas State is a team to watch as the year progresses, but I fully expect them to continue to succeed and be a factor in the NCAA Tournament in March. For all of you who still don’t believe that Frank Martin is a top notch basketball coach, you know nothing about the sport. He has turned the program around and with another strong year, will peak many athletic director’s interest when coaching vacancies arise.