MANHATTAN, Kan. – Kansas State is the hottest team going into the Big 12 tournament because coach Frank Martin took the biggest gamble of his coaching career — and won.
In January, with the team adrift and a once-promising season teetering, Martin decided to throw out his offense and switch to something entirely different.
He knew he was taking a huge risk. Since their first practice back the fall, his players had been running an offense that featured lots of ball screens and post plays. At 0-2 in the Big 12 and with post players deserting his program, he changed to more of a spread attack.
There was no way to know how quickly, or how well, the team would adapt.
"It's a hard (decision), especially when you've never done it before," said Martin. "Because if that doesn't work and we flounder, (the media) would be writing I don't know what I'm doing, I need to go back to high school basketball."
But work it did. Not only is Martin staying at the college level, his Wildcats (22-9) are barreling into the Big 12 tournament as winners of six in a row and eight of nine. They have victories over No. 2 Kansas and No. 8 Texas.
Finally, they're playing like the team everyone expected when coaches installed them as preseason Big 12 favorites and The Associated Press poll ranked them No. 3.
"I'm so proud of those guys in that locker room," Martin said. "They trust in what we're doing. They fight for each other and they trust in what we do."
The new approach has unleashed the full talents of senior guard Jacob Pullen. Pullen had problems early in the year just like his team, including a three-game suspension for accepting inappropriate discounts at a local clothing store.
But Pullen is going into the postseason as the hottest player on the hottest team in the Big 12. He scored 17 points in Saturday's victory over Iowa State and had been averaging 27.2 in the previous five before that.
"It takes dribble responsibility away from guys and it allows postups on slices and cuts," Martin said. "We don't have a single post guy we can throw it in there and expect him to score against other peoples' big guys all the time. So it just made a lot of sense."
Freddy Asprilla, a transfer being counted on to provide muscle and offense inside, quit the team in December. When Martin made the switch, there were rumors that Wally Judge, a 6-foot-9 sophomore and former McDonald's all-American, was also on the verge of quitting. On Jan. 30, he did, leaving the Wildcats light in the position.
But with the new offense featuring more guard play, freshman Will Spradling and sophomore Rodney McGruder seized their opportunity and became a much bigger part of the picture.
"It's cut down on our turnovers," said Martin. "It's helped us in taking better shots and I think the thing it's done best for us is move Jacob around. Jacob doesn't stand around. The ball's not just in his hands. Therefore, people can't just scheme to guard him. They've got to guard the offense. then all of a sudden, here he comes."
Their first game with the new attack was encouraging, a 94-60 victory at home over Texas Tech. But then came road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M. The preseason conference favorites were 1-4 in the Big 12 and all the way out of the rankings.
"It took us some games to understand what we were supposed to be doing out of that offense," said Pullen, who is within range of becoming Kansas State's career scoring leader. "But going into that Kansas game we understood we could get layup after layup from that."
The Jayhawks had just been elevated to No. 1 a few hours earlier when they sauntered into Bramlage Coliseum on Feb. 14 as 10-point favorites. But with Pullen pouring in 38 points, the stunned Jayhawks were routed 90-66 in what turned into a coming-out party for the new and improved Kansas State.
The Wildcats have not lost since.
"As long as we continue to move and cut and understand the shots we're supposed to get out of it, I think that offense is pretty good to us as a team," Pullen said. "We're doing a good job of just being patient and getting what we need out of that offense."