TUCSON, Ariz. – With most of its team coming back from last year's NCAA regional finals run, Kansas State built up big expectations in the Little Apple.
A midseason funk threatened to ruin it all.
A little tweak of the offense, a kick in the backside from coach Frank Martin and some re-found confidence, the Wildcats regained their mojo and are ready for a run through the bracket.
Back in the polls at No. 21 after a tilt-a-whirl season, Kansas State opens (22-10) the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed against 12th-seeded Utah State (30-3) on Thursday in the Southeast Regional.
"We're starting to gel at the perfect time where we have to go on a streak," Kansas State senior forward Curtis Kelly said Wednesday. "That streak could be big for our program and I think it's the perfect time. Now's the time we've finally knocked off all the negative stuff."
The negative stuff hit right at the start of conference.
Coming off a rout of overmatched Savannah State, the Wildcats were 12-3 headed into the Big 12, looking to give rival Kansas a run for the conference title.
Instead, Kansas State ran up five losses in its first seven Big 12 games, making a return trip to the NCAA tournament look like a pipe dream.
Then Martin saw a light at the end of the, uh, pipe.
Dissatisfied with the way his team was scoring, particularly out of the post, Martin pulled off a midseason alteration of Kansas State's offense, spreading it out to give his players — particularly senior star Jacob Pullen — more room to operate.
Even in a loss to Colorado on Feb. 12, Martin could see the move was working, verified by the Wildcats' thrashing of top-ranked Kansas two days later. Kansas State ended up winning its next five games before losing to Colorado in the Big 12 tournament, its confidence and place in the NCAA tournament restored.
"They did a really good job as a coaching staff to implement that in the middle of the season," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "That's not easy to do and that's taking a big chance when you do that, that it might not work. It's worked for them."
The tough part is that the NCAA tournament selection committee didn't do the Wildcats any favors in the bracket.
Utah State, led by six seniors, rolled through the regular season to win the WAC by five games and followed that up with the conference tournament title.
The Aggies are tenacious, disciplined and multidimensional. They have one of the country's best — and most patient — post players in WAC player of the year Tai Wesley, steady-and-heady point guard Brockeith Pane and plenty of experience with just three underclassmen on the roster.
In other words, they're exactly the kind of team bracket prognosticators look for when trying to predict a No. 12 seed bumping off a 5.
"They've got grown men," Martin said. "They're old. They've been through it. They understand. They've got a championship culture in their program. They expect to win the games they play, regardless of who the opponent is."
Utah State is looking for any kind of win in the NCAA tournament.
The Aggies have been regulars in the bracket, reaching the NCAA tournament eight of the past 12 years, including three straight. They just can't seem to win when they get there, losing six straight 14 of 15 since 1971.
Seeding has hurt them.
Between playing in the WAC and not being able to lure big-name programs all the way out to Logan, Utah State has yet to get a seeding higher than 10th — and that was in 1983. The high seeds mean difficult matchups, pitting the Aggies against top programs like UCLA, Kansas, Arizona, Washington and, last season, Texas A&M.
The Aggies, based on their recent run of success and record-breaking season, figured they'd get a better seed this year, maybe high as a 7 or 8.
It didn't happen, leaving Utah State's players frustrated on selection Sunday and in another tough opener against a physical, athletic team in the NCAA tournament.
On the other side of it, though it's also a chance to finally win an NCAA game and do a little told-you-so finger pointing.
"We're here, we're in the NCAA tournament, we have a great opportunity before us to make some national noise and get us some attention, and even prove some guys wrong," Wesley said. "So why not take advantage of this opportunity we've been given?"
The Wildcats are thinking the exact same thing.