Not much had gone right for Kansas State or Jacob Pullen this season.
In the preseason, Kansas State was picked to win the Big 12 for the first time ever and Pullen was tabbed as the conference player of the year.
Yet the Wildcats entered Monday night’s game against Kansas with nothing but trouble to show for their efforts.
Sure, there were a few pops of success like beating Virginia Tech, Gonzaga and Washington State. But those games were in November and early December.
Senior Curtis Kelly had been suspended twice, missing nine games. Pullen was suspended for three games for accepting extra benefits. Wally Judge quit the team after 17 games.
Kansas State was 1-5 on the road in the Big 12 and had been swept by Colorado, the last matchup coming down to the buzzer Saturday night when a game-winning 3-point shot by Rodney McGruder wasn’t allowed since it came just after the clock hit zeroes. With 33 seconds left in that game, Pullen committed a costly turnover with his Wildcats down one.
It’s just been that kind of season for the senior guard. At one point he was so frustrated that he said this: “I won’t play basketball in the NIT. I’m saying that now. If we lose and we have to go to the NIT. I will not play.’’
“There was a lot of things going bad for us,’’ Pullen said by phone from Manhattan, Kan., on Monday night. “We had problems off the court. We were college students that made bad decisions and at the same time there was a lot of pressure on my teammates and they’ve never dealt with this and the expectations.’’
And yet, all seemed forgiven on one magical Monday night at Bramlage Coliseum.
Pullen erased plenty of the bad karma with his 38-point undressing of Kansas in K-State’s 84-68 rout of the top-ranked Jayhawks.
“Credit goes to my teammates that did a great job of getting me the ball, setting screens and making plays,’’ said Pullen after his career-high scoring performance. “When we make plays like we did tonight, we look good.’’
A season ago, Pullen was one of the catalysts with his backcourt mate, senior Denis Clemente, in Kansas State’s Elite Eight run that was ended by Butler in Salt Lake City.
“We won games with a core group of people that came in to practice and worked hard,’’ Pullen said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys and freshmen that had to understand what we had to do. We didn’t expect to be the No. 3 team in the country [in the preseason].’’
Pullen said the team came together on Sunday and made sure they checked the poor vibes from the late loss to Colorado right at the door of the locker room.
“I made a bad play, turned the ball over and Rodney’s shot was too late,’’ Pullen said. “I knew we had to focus on Kansas. I felt I didn’t want to be overly aggressive with my shot. But my team followed me and when I do things in practice that are lackadaisical it affects my team. Me and [coach] Frank [Martin] communicated in the last month that when I’m having a bad practice, he pulls me out. I know that as a point guard we have to understand each other and lately I’ve understood that he has to count on me as a leader.’’
Kansas State (17-9, 5-6 Big 12) has five games remaining in the regular season. Home games against Oklahoma, Missouri and Iowa State are must-wins. Splitting the road games at Nebraska and Texas would help the cause, too.
But what happens to Pullen if Kansas State doesn’t make the NCAA and is invited to play in the NIT?
“I will play anywhere,’’ Pullen said. “I said that comment in a heated moment to get my teammates to understand the reality. I didn’t say that comment to mean it. In my heart I will play for Kansas State regardless if it’s in the NIT or the NCAA.
“I think if we can win some games, get a win on the road,’’ Pullen said. “I think we’ll play our way in.’’