K-State guards hardly lost in translation

Guards Jacob Pullen (left) and Denis Clemente have led Kansas State to its first Elite Eight appearance in more than 20 years. Douglas C. Pizac/US Presswire

SALT LAKE CITY -- Kansas State Wildcats guard Denis Clemente still remembers the first time he visited Manhattan, Kan.

"Everything was flat," Clemente recalled. "And there wasn't anything to do."

So Clemente did what he does best, he spent hour after hour in Kansas State's practice gym.

"Denis was a gym rat," Wildcats guard Jacob Pullen said. "I thought I was a gym rat, but Denis is a different kind of gym rat. We'd have open gym at 2 p.m. and he'd show up at 9 a.m. We'd play one-on-one and he'd beat me. I didn't want to walk off after losing, so we'd play all night."

Day after day, Clemente and Pullen formed a bond that helped them become one of college basketball's best backcourts. They've led Kansas State to its first appearance in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight since 1988, when the Wildcats lost to rival Kansas 71-58 in the regional finals.

The No. 2-seeded Wildcats play No. 5-seeded Butler in the West Regional finals at EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday. The winner advances to next week's Final Four in Indianapolis.

"'Small' means very little when you get to this level," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "I think those guys play much bigger than they are. They have huge hearts. They're incredibly fast. Right now, Clemente scares you as much as any player you're going to play against, as does Pullen. Pullen might be having the best tournament of anybody in the country right now."

Clemente and Pullen are the Wildcats' undisputed leaders, even though they go about it in completely different ways.

"We understand that we both want to lead and we both want to win," Pullen said.

Clemente, a senior from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, leads by his play more than his mouth. He still doesn't speak fluent English, after moving to Miami when he was 16 years old. Growing up, Clemente played baseball -- his grandfather's cousin was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, the most famous athlete in Puerto Rico's history -- but he liked basketball more because of the sport's faster pace.

Clemente made his first basketball goal out of a bicycle rim. Before his junior year of high school, Clemente moved to Miami with his mother with the goal of receiving a college scholarship.

After a standout career at Calusa Prep in Miami, Clemente was recruited by Wildcats coach Frank Martin, who was an assistant under Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins at the time.

"I wanted to go to Cincinnati and play for Bob Huggins, but because of the language [barrier], I was a little scared," Clemente said.

So Clemente stayed close to home and signed with the University of Miami. He was more comfortable with his surroundings and some of his teammates spoke Spanish. Clemente averaged 5.5 points as a freshman in 2005-06 and 9.8 points as a sophomore.

But Clemente said he felt trapped in Miami's prodding system. He transferred to Kansas State after Martin succeeded Huggins as the Wildcats' head coach before the 2007-08 season.

"The system and the way they coached was not the way I wanted to play basketball," Clemente said of his time with the Hurricanes. "I have more freedom here. I didn't like the way the coaches treated people. Here, they just let me play basketball."

As Kansas State's point guard, Clemente said Martin gives him complete freedom on the court. He is allowed to call nearly all of the team's half-court plays and always has freedom to shoot or pass. It helps that Martin, the son of Cuban immigrants, speaks Clemente's native language.

"It's the advantage we have," Clemente said. "We both speak Spanish. No one else can understand us."

Pullen, a 6-foot junior, grew up just outside of Chicago. He instantly formed a bond with Clemente, even if he didn't always understand what his teammate was saying.

"He didn't understand English very well," Pullen said. "He just always smiled."

Pullen started referring to Clemente as "Chico" and the moniker stuck.

Clemente and Pullen became the Wildcats' backbone following the departure of All-American Michael Beasley and Bill Walker after the 2008 season. Pullen is a fan favorite. His beard is as famous as his jump shot in Kansas. K-State students wear the "Fear the Beard" T-shirts at games and the school gave away fake beards at games this season.

Pullen has even become Clemente's translator during team huddles.

"If Denis wants to say something in the huddle, he might not be able to express it because he doesn't speak great English," Pullen said. "That's when I step in. I'm more of a vocal leader. Denis tends to lead by example."

Both Clemente and Pullen have been leading by example throughout the NCAA tournament. Pullen is averaging 25.7 points in three NCAA tournament games and has made 15 of 30 3-pointers. Clemente is averaging 20.3 points, with 14 assists and five turnovers.

In the Wildcats' 101-96 victory in double overtime against No. 6-seeded Xavier in the West Regional semifinals on Thursday night, Clemente took 22 shots in regulation. But Pullen carried Kansas State in overtime, scoring 10 points in the two extra periods. Clemente took only two shots, but had four assists.

"Having upperclassmen guards helps you get through [those] kind of games, because Denis and Jake never got rattled," Martin said.

It's hard to imagine them getting rattled anytime soon, either.