Wildcats regain their swagger

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas State got complacent. The Wildcats lost their edge. They no longer were the team that played the role of being the unwanted.

They were ripe to be beaten.

And they were. They closed the regular season by getting crushed in the second half at Kansas and then were shocked in overtime at home by lowly Iowa State.

So Kansas State coach Frank Martin did what he does best – he found the way to motivate by pitting his best players against one another for the first time since November. No longer could he afford to put Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente on the same team to rest their weary legs.

“We’re not passive, we’re aggressive,’’ Martin said. “We had backed off of that the past few weeks because it’s a long season. I didn’t wan to bury our guys. They earned that right but it took us off our edge and we had slipped.’’

Throughout the week the practices were intense with the players going two-plus hours and not checking the clock. Forget that it was March. They had to be competitive again and get back to their roots, the cause that had put the Wildcats in the position to be in contention for a No. 1 seed.

“We started to be to comfortable as a team,’’ Pullen said. “We had success early. Once everyone said we were a top five team we stopped competing against each other. Denis and I were always on the same team going against a freshman. But we switched it up and attacked each other and got competitive, fighting each other. It really helped us.’’

I’ll say. Kansas State had the look of a Final Four team Thursday night in routing Oklahoma State. At one point the Wildcats were up 30. Kansas State ended up winning by 29, crushing the Cowboys on the boards, scoring off turnovers and getting inspired play off the bench from Jamar Samuels who scored 27. You couldn’t watch Kansas State Thursday and not think highly of this squad going into the NCAA tournament.

“As a team we felt like we’re top five but we started smelling our own stuff,’’ Pullen said. “We understood what we had to do, we prepared and did a great job.’’

There is a trend brewing around the country, especially in the Big East where teams that are already in the field have shut it down to some degree in preparation for the NCAA tournament. Not so here. Kansas State is still smarting from being up on KU in Manhattan, letting the game get away and losing in overtime. Then they were close in Lawrence in the first half and let that game get away as well.

The big prize is obviously next week in the quest for a national championship, something that is within reach for the Wildcats. But don’t dismiss the importance for the psyche of the Wildcat nation of winning a Big 12 tournament title, especially if it comes against Kansas Saturday night.

“It’s very important to us,’’ Pullen said. “Our seniors have never won a championship. I lost out in high school to Derrick Rose. He took two from me. I’m trying to get one. We blew our chance against KU. Once we lost they played freely at Missouri. This is our second opportunity, our rebirth to get a ring so that one day we can actually say we have a Big 12 championship.’’

The difference in approach between Kansas State and Oklahoma State was vast. Oklahoma State is in the field after knocking off Kansas State and Kansas and splitting with Texas A&M.

A year ago the Cowboys felt like they had to win at least a game in the Big 12 to get a bid. No one team entered this event feeling that pressure with essentially seven locks here.

“It’s a different feeling this year,’’ Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “There’s no question if you have to come to the Big 12 tournament as good as it has been to win a game. That would have been a lot of pressure.’’

Ford showed no signs of angst after being down 30 and the eventual 29 defeat. He is confident the youthful Cowboys will be fine next week in the NCAAs after practicing for a few days.

“There’s a reason that three or four days ago they were being discussed as a No. 1 seed,’’ Ford said of Kansas State. “Frank has done an unbelievable job. This was more about Kansas State than about us.’’

I’ll say. And the verdict is in that Kansas State has the look of a potential Big 12 champ and a team that should hang around for a while this month.