The midway point of the Big 12 season was reached this week and Kansas State sits in fifth place in the league with a 4-5 record. But as Bob Huggins said in his year at K-State, it’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint, so it’s not time to panic yet.
“I tell the players all the time, who cares who is winning the race halfway through the mile,” K-State head coach Frank Martin said on Thursday. “If the race is a mile the only thing that matters is who crosses the finish line when the mile is over, it’s not where you’re at halfway through the race. We’re kind of middle-of-the-pack right now, but we’re worried about the end line, not where we’re at right now.”
The Wildcats, who host Texas A&M tomorrow at 3 p.m., were 4-5 in their first nine league games last season as well, and then went on to rattle off six wins in their last seven regular season games. So this is a familiar position for Martin’s squad, and it’s also the time of the year his teams usually shine. Over the last three years, K-State is 20-3 in the month of February, with three wins over top-10 teams during that stretch, and tomorrow just happens to mark the Wildcats’ first game in the calendar year’s shortest month.
“Out teams play their best basketball at the end of the year,” Martin said. But every team is different. Let’s see how this team fares in February. Do I have confidence it can happen? Absolutely, but I’m not going to predict it because I know how hard winning is.”
But this team appears close to getting over the hump, so a successful February wouldn’t be surprising. The Wildcats have lost four games by a combined total of nine points — essentially meaning they are four less mistakes, or just a couple minutes of better basketball away from being 19-2 and 7-2 in league play, ranked in the top five of the country and being the talk of college basketball.
Now there are two ways this can go for K-State: Do the Wildcats let those close games frustrate them, or do they stay hungry knowing how close they are?
Probably the latter.
“It’s encouraging,” Martin said. “And that’s what I try telling the kids. The kids can get depressed because they’re young and they don’t understand. I’m not accepting it, it’s frustrating, but it’s encouraging because it should tell us with the mistakes that we’re making, if we’re able to correct a third of them then we wouldn’t be sitting here saying ‘gosh, you guys have lost some games.’ You’d be sitting here saying K-State is a top-10 team in the country.
“It’s right there, and that’s the beauty of keeping your focus on the fact that you’re playing a whole season and not where you’re at on January 31st. We’ve got another month and a half to continue to work on those things so we can change them and win those kind of games.”
K-State is young, having just two seniors on its team, and that’s not making an excuse, that’s simply stating that there’s plenty of room to grow. The goal is that the mistakes being made late in games right now become a learning experience and won’t be made in the not-so-distant future. Since the Wildcats have been so close is an encouraging sign for the future, which includes the final six weeks of this season.
“You’re starting to watch Adrian Diaz really become a little more consistent with what he does for us,” Martin said. “Thomas Gipson, outside of the Oklahoma game where he was sick, he’s been better for us again. Angel (Rodriguez) is still up and down and that’s my challenge with him — to get him to become more consistent.”
K-State is coming off a gut-wrenching 72-70 loss on the road at Iowa State on Tuesday, and just before that defeat came a three-point loss to Oklahoma in Bramlage Coliseum. Back-to-back losses like that can be disheartening, but the veteran players on the team have kept the young guys’ heads up.
“While we are in no way of acceptance of the outcome of either game, it continues to reassure me just how close we are — to just continue to do the work that we’ve been doing and those things will come as time comes around,” Martin said. “What we can’t do is we can’t allow that to break our spirit and right now that has not broken our spirit. You’ve got to keep pushing ahead.”
Just because of a few difficult losses, Martin continues to have complete faith in his squad.
“I’m as excited about this team today as I was the first day of practice,” he said. “I don’t allow a game or a record to change my opinion. I look at the other things, the people involved, the opportunities, how close we are or where we could be if we correct some of our mistakes. And I think we’re real close. I really think we’re getting better.”
TEXAS A&M (12-9, 3-6)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G — Elston Turner Jr. 6-5 14.4 3.5
G — Jordan Green Fr. 6-4 3.4 2.0
F — Ray Turner Jr. 6-9 9.9 6.0
F — David Loubeau Sr. 6-8 11.1 4.4
F — Keith Davis So. 6-10 1.5 4.0
KANSAS STATE (15-6, 4-5)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G — Angel Rodriguez Fr. 5-11 7.1 2.3
G — Will Spradling So. 6-2 10.0 2.3
G — Rodney McGruder Jr. 6-4 15.4 5.3
F — Jamar Samuels Sr. 6-7 10.5 6.4
F — Thomas Gipson Fr. 6-7 8.5 5.6