Convincing K-State sets up dream CBE final

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Is Duke the best team in the country? Well, is it?

After one night at the CBE Classic -- a night that included a Duke win, remember -- Kansas State made questioning Duke's celebrated status seem, well, reasonable. Just after the nation's No. 1 team struggled to fend off an undersized and overwhelmed Marquette bunch, the fourth-ranked Wildcats thoroughly destroyed an 18th-ranked Gonzaga team some experts picked to make the Final Four before the season started.

It was hard not to watch KSU's comprehensive attack as it so thoroughly dismantled a quality opponent and wonder: Doesn't this team look better than the one I just saw?

The good news? We won't have to wonder for long.

Kansas State's 81-64 win in the second CBE Classic semifinal here Monday night means the Wildcats get a chance to settle the argument in a matchup with Duke in the Tuesday night final on ESPN2. It's a dream early-season matchup and a dream result for the thousands of Kansas State fans that flocked to the Sprint Center this week in the hopes of seeing K-State take on -- and take down -- the No. 1-ranked Blue Devils.

"It's a little tough when it's a neutral-court situation, and you walk out and the entire crowd is filled with purple," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

He wasn't exaggerating. Kansas State fans stuffed the arena with loud chants of "K-S-U" Monday night, and what they saw when they weren't screaming their heads off -- or, sometimes, when they were -- had to make the late-night drive home or to the hotel immensely pleasurable. The Wildcats were unstoppable on offense and tenacious on defense. They forced turnovers, made Gonzaga uncomfortable throughout, and capitalized on the other end with open shots and layups in the secondary break.

In other words, they played like Kansas State: uptempo, high-pressure, physical, and downright frightening.

"We live in transition," Pullen said. "We really don't want to have to set up an offense if we don't have to."

For much of the night, Kansas State didn't have to. That was primarily thanks to the Wildcats' hot hands. K-State shot 46.2 percent from beyond the arc, rebounded many of its misses (30.6 percent of their misses, to be exact) and ended up scoring around 1.56 points per trip. KSU had scored 49 points by the time the first half was over, and with the exception of a quick Gonzaga run at the beginning of the second half, the Wildcats never looked back.

Nearly as impressive as K-State's offensive ability was its depth. Frank Martin played nine players 14 or more minutes Monday night, subbing in big man after big man (including, but not limited to, Freddy Asprilla, Wally Judge, Jamar Samuels, Curtis Kelly, Victor Ojeleye) and guard after guard (Jacob Pullen, Will Spradling, Martavious Irving, Rodney McGruder, Nick Russell). The overall effect -- even for a schlub hovered over his laptop on press row -- was dizzying. Imagine how Gonzaga must have felt.

"They just keep coming at you in droves," Few said. "There is no drop-off when they sub."

That depth allows Kansas State to keep up its furious pace, and even when that doesn't translate into lots of possessions, it allows the Wildcats to furiously pressure the ball in the half-court and sprint into their offense when a steal or a long rebound presents the opportunity.

"We want to attack, we want to run, and we want you to get into your bench because we're comfortable with ours," Pullen said.

Part of that depth comes in the form of Spradling, the freshman guard who has managed to seamlessly take over much of the point guard duties that once belonged to the graduated Denis Clemente. Spradling isn't flashy and he isn't going to fill up the box score, but he's proved capable enough to allow Pullen to play off the ball when opponents force Kansas State to run a little half-court offense. Spradling added 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting against the Zags.

"He's a heady player," Pullen said. "I love Will because every day in practice I try to expose him. Every little drill, I try to embarrass him. And every day he steps up to the challenge. He continues to learn."

The Wildcats have plenty of time to accomplish their dreams of a national title this season. It is, after all, only Nov. 23. But this Nov. 23 is a bit bigger than most. On Tuesday night, Kansas State will take on the top team in the country, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who watched both CBE Classic semifinals -- whether they're wearing purple or not -- who would say the Wildcats don't have what it takes to beat the Blue Devils.

Add in a raucous environment, and, well, maybe K-State's time has come. Maybe, just maybe, this is the best team in the country.

It certainly looked the part Monday night.

"This is a great measuring stick for us," Pullen said. "Duke is the defending national champs. They have a great team. ... It's a great opportunity for us."

That's one understatement. Here's another:

Tuesday night's game is going to be pretty fun, huh?