PITTSBURGH — Brad Underwood is on the other end of the phone, and after 20 or so minutes of talking, the emotion begins to build up.
“From a pride standpoint, it almost brings you to tears to think about how far we’ve come,” Kansas State’s associate head coach said.
After all the hardships that the K-State men’s basketball program had endured in the 1990s and early 2000s, here the Wildcats are today nearly 1,000 miles from Manhattan, preparing for their third straight NCAA tournament, their fourth trip to the Big Dance in the past five seasons, and their sixth consecutive postseason appearance, something that had never been done before in the program’s illustrious history.
K-State basketball was essentially on life support for a 12-year stretch (1994-06) — a time in which the Wildcats won just 48.5 percent of their games, while making just one NCAA tournament. More often than not, K-State fans found themselves desperately hoping for an NIT bid — not many of those invitations came either.
And for those reasons, this climb back to national prominence is something the coaches, players and everyone else involved in the program’s rise takes an immense amount of pride in.
“I get emotional when I think about it,” said Underwood, who played at K-State from 1984-86. “It’s been an unbelievable — just unbelievable six years and hopefully there are a lot more to come.”
The hiring of Bob Huggins in 2006 made the Wildcats’ program relevant on the national scene once again, and then Frank Martin took what Huggins started to another level.
“Walking into the door, Coach Huggins’ credibility is what allowed us to take a giant step right off the bat and create that foundation,” Martin said. “All we’ve done is we’ve continued to build. Like I said in my very first news conference, the foundation has been laid and we’re going to continue to build it up.”
In doing so, Martin and his staff have instilled pride back into K-State basketball — in a way, they’ve resurrected the program.
The first step for a coach, and perhaps the most crucial one, when building a program is creating the culture that the coaching staff stands for.
“There’s something you’ve got to believe in,” Martin said. “That’s why working for Huggs was so special for me because he and I kind of stand for the same things. We created the culture that first year.”
The key was developing an attitude that losing was unacceptable, and in doing so, the players learned to despise losses so much that they did everything in their power to make sure they didn’t occur at a high frequency.
“Coach Huggins got here and it was a lot different — from a weight-room perspective and then a practice perspective,” former K-State point guard Clent Stewart said. “Everything changed to where it was 100 percent no matter what we were doing. They got after us and really pushed us to get to our top potential that we could reach. That was the key.”
Players became accountable, both on the floor and in the classroom as well.
“I was talking to them about being one of the top-25 programs in the history of college basketball and how they hadn’t lived up to it and weren’t living up to it,” Underwood said. “There was a price to pay for that, and that price was hard work. It started at the grassroots level in the weight room with Scott (Greenawalt).