Early exit from Big 12 tourney could benefit Cats

By Cole Manbeck

Jamar Samuels drove to Topeka this past weekend to watch his girlfriend play basketball. Rodney McGruder relaxed from home and watched basketball on TV while Frank Martin spent time with his family.

Kansas State had some free time this weekend, and that’s not such a bad thing.

“I would have rather been playing with my team and being out there competing for the Big 12 Championship,” Jordan Henriquez said. “But these last couple of days have been all right — regrouping and refocusing.”

K-State lost to Baylor in its opening game of the Big 12 Championship last Thursday in Kansas City, Mo. And while a win may have improved the Wildcats’ seeding in the NCAA tournament, there are benefits to losing early. K-State, which didn’t practice this past Friday or Saturday, was able to separate itself from the season for a couple of days, something most teams who played deep into their conference tournaments didn’t have the opportunity to do.

“Our players deserved the little two-day break,” Martin said. “Every once in a while it’s good to step away for a couple of days. It gets you re-energized to come back in here and do your job.”

K-State was afforded that opportunity — a chance to heal not only physically from the six-month grind of the season, but perhaps more importantly, mentally.

“I just had to get away and clear my mind,” Samuels said of his trip to Topeka. “Now I’m very, very focused. Just trying to get this team to go as far as we can.”

The Wildcats would rather have some Big 12 tournament hardware sitting inside their trophy case after this past weekend, but ultimately, the most important game of the season is Thursday, when they play Southern Mississippi in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Pittsburgh. And if K-State, which tips off at 11:40 a.m. against the Golden Eagles, advances with a win, the most important game then comes Saturday and so on.

So while the conference tournament is important, it’s not as big as what lies ahead. With what’s at stake this week, it’s crucial to be mentally and physically rested.

Teams who played their conference championship on Sunday found out their NCAA-tournament seed hours after their game, and immediately had to break into prep work for their opening opponents. K-State was able to get two quality days of rest before breaking down scouting reports, film and all of the things that come with the NCAA tournament.

“Let’s say you play (Sunday) and you’ve got to travel Tuesday, how much preparation time do you actually have to step away from the season and reorganize yourself and then go play an opponent?” Martin asked. “See, right now it’s easy for us to play Baylor or Kansas on one-day notice because we’ve been playing each other for the last 18 games. You’re getting ready to go play an unknown right now, you’ve got to be able to step away from what you’ve been doing to refocus on what’s in front of you.

“I would have liked to have played (Saturday in the title game) and still would have felt good about our preparation for Thursday. But two days away from each other, after six months of being on top of each other every day, that’s not a bad thing.”

Now, after the time away, the Wildcats are anxious to get back to business on the court.

“We’re just ready to play,” McGruder said. “We’re going to give all that we have.”

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