For most of the season Manhattan, Kans., resembled the site of a morbid experiment: How much stress could a team inflict on itself before surrendering completely? But last week, after four months of unrest and controversy, Kansas State finally showed signs of life. On Feb. 14—the same day that hated Kansas was voted the No. 1 team in the country—the Wildcats trounced the Jayhawks at Bramlage Coliseum, 84--68, behind a career-high 38 points from preseason All-America guard Jacob Pullen. Five days later Pullen poured in 27 points and had five steals in a 77--62 drubbing of Oklahoma.
K-State (18--9, 6--6 Big 12) has won four of its last five—with only a 58--56 last-second loss at Colorado on Feb. 12 spoiling that otherwise perfect stretch.
How did things go so wrong for Kansas State—a consensus top five preseason pick that Pullen was supposed to lead to the Big 12 title and the Final Four? The trouble started early.
In mid-December, Pullen and senior forward Curtis Kelly were suspended for three and six games, respectively, for receiving clothing discounts at a Dillard's department store. (Kelly had already been held out of the year's first three games for what coach Frank Martin called poor practice habits.) In the first game without both players, K-State lost to UNLV, after which Martin tore into his players so furiously that the assembled reporters could hear the tirade from outside. That night junior forward Jamar Samuels told reporters, "We'll try that leadership thingy Frank is talking about."
But this "thingy" took far longer to catch on. In January a frustrated Pullen said he would refuse to play if the Wildcats made the NIT, and the team's frontcourt—which once figured to be its biggest strength—was decimated when junior center Freddy Asprilla and sophomore forward Wally Judge left the team in the span of 16 days. (Both seemed unhappy playing for Martin.) All told, K-State lost five of eight games in January to plunge to 14--8.
"When those guys left, it made us closer as a team," says Samuels. "We just promised each other that nobody else can leave. We need everybody we can to make a long run."
And with Pullen embracing that leadership thingy—he's now scored at least 20 points in eight of 12 Big 12 games—the Wildcats have finally found their fight. Samuels says blood was shed during the practice after the Colorado loss. "It was so intense: elbowing, rug-burns, guys on the floor." Unmistakable signs of life.
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Photographs by GREG NELSON
MANHATTAN PROJECT Martin (inset, right) went nuclear on his team during a sluggish start; Pullen (0) has responded with an explosive second-half turnaround.