Kansas State officials had plenty of critics after Bob Huggins left Manhattan following one season to take his dream job as the coach at his alma mater, West Virginia, in 2008.
They were criticized for hiring a coach who fled after just one year. And they took plenty of shots for then promoting Huggins' top assistant, Frank Martin, to head coach rather than hiring someone with a higher profile. However, it has become quite clear after three-plus seasons, that Martin was certainly the right choice. He has compiled a 106-44 record and is doing his best coaching job yet this season.
Picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12 standings after losing five players who started at least 11 games last season, Kansas State is 11-1 and cracked the Associated Press media poll this week at No. 23. Ken Pomeroy has Kansas State at No. 22 in his rankings at KenPom.com, Kyle Whelliston has the Wildcats ranked 31st at BasketballState.com and they are No. 32 in the RPI. Kansas State's only loss came in double overtime against West Virginia at home.
Pretty impressive stuff until you know Martin spent the first nine years of his coaching coach reloading each November while running the junior varsity team at Miami Senior High School.
"When you're a JV coach, you're getting new ninth-graders every year," Martin said. "You don't know what you're getting and you try to fit all the pieces together."
The pieces are fitting pretty well for Kansas State this season, even if the team doesn't doesn't have a scorer to replace Jacob Pullen, who averaged 20.2 points a game as a senior last season when the Wildcats went 23-11 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, junior forward Rodney McGruder, who served as Pullen's primary sidekick last season, leads a quartet of double-digit scorers by averaging 12.3 points a game and 5.2 rebounds a game. Sophomore guard Will Spradling and senior forward Jamar Samuels are both scoring 11.8 points a game--Samuels is also averaging 7.2 rebounds--while freshman forward Thomas Gipson has been an immediate contributor with averages of 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Spradling has been a particularly effective player on the offensive end. His 126.3 offensive rating is 49th in the nation and he ranks 95th with a 63.7 True Shooting Percentage. The Wildcats are 45th in offensive efficiency with a 109.0 rating.
Defense, though, has been the calling card of Martin's teams and that is no different this season as Kansas State's players aren't afraid to hit the floor for a 50-50 ball or to draw a charge. The Wildcats' 88.0 defensive efficiency ranks No. 18 in the nation and Samuels (8.4, fifth), Gipson (7.3, 15th) and junior forward Jordan Henriquez (6.2, 80th) are among the Division I leaders in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.
"We have tough kids," Martin said. "(McGruder) has faced adversity during his time here and he could have packed his bags and gone home or grabbed a pillow and went to the corner of the bench and cried. (Samuels) had challenges in the offseason and he's gone through two deaths in his family in the last week, something nobody should have to go through, and he's as emotionally stable as ever. We had guys who were being asked to fill new roles when the season began. They weren't assigned the roles. They've asked for them and they have filled them very well."
Martin believes Kansas State's program has reached the point where it can sustain heavy personnel losses, though it's not something he would prefer getting used to.
"We don't have a lot of guys who have much experience as far as playing high-major minutes," Martin said. "However, we have guys who have been in the program a long time. They embrace the culture and tradition and they expect to win."
Kansas State's pride will be put to the test in the next week as the Wildcats will run a gauntlet of some of the best teams in the country in its first three Big 12 games, starting tonight when they visits Kansas. On Saturday, Missouri visits Manhattan, then Baylor comes to town next Tuesday.
Kansas (10-3) is 14th in the AP poll and ranked No. 6 by KenPom.com and No. 46 in the RPI while Missouri (14-0) is seventh, 10th and 35th and Baylor (14-0) is fourth, 13th and fifth.
"We're ready to go," Martin said. "Does that mean do we have a chance to win? I have no idea. Our guys have been good and they've answered the bell every time. We're a play away from being undefeated. What's going to happen in Big 12 play? I don't think anyone knows."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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