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February 15, 2009Just a day prior to tip off, Kansas State coach Frank Martin urged students to remain in the stands and off the court following Saturday's game with Kansas. As it turns out, the second-year head coach got his wish. Fans began heading in the opposite direction before the final buzzer even sounded, knowing they watched their Wildcats let what was once a very winnable game slip away.
"Hard-fought, "contested" or "tight," pick your adjective. Each would work in describing Saturday's contest, but know that those words matter none. To the Wildcats, who saw their six-game winning streak snapped on their home floor this weekend, a loss is simply a loss.
The one word that does strike chord with Martin and his players is "demoralizing", and despite allowing the Jayhawks to overcome an early 16-point deficit to capture a win in their building, it's not a word any Wildcat player wants to hear.
"I don't think that loss can hurt our confidence at all," said sophomore guard Jacob Pullen. "As a team, we know that we're capable of beating them, so it doesn't mess with our confidence. We know that we'll get another chance in Oklahoma City."
K-State's first loss of the Big 12 season sparked a four-game losing streak, and following Saturday's game, Martin, knowingly or not, hinted that his team's youth is still, at least in some ways, affecting its performance.
"He's a young kid," Martin said of forward Dominique Sutton, who shot 3 of 10 from the floor against KU. "He's been shooting it a lot better, but he shot an air ball from the left wing. He hung his head after that shot. Then, the other shots he took had no chance to go in."
It's a simple reality of most sports: If players can be streaky, team's can follow suit. So is it possible that Sutton's game could function as a microcosmic for this team going forward? Could confidence once again become an issue for a squad comprised mostly of sophomores?
Not only does Martin say no, he takes exception to the question.
"We just won six in a row after being 0-4, do you think anybody is going to be affected confidence-wise?" Martin said with some visible and audible fire following the loss to Kansas.
There aren't too many events more capable of breaking momentum than a loss to your rival on your home court, and make no mistake about it: what took place inside Bramlage Coliseum on Saturday leaves the relatively inexperienced Wildcats with little room for error in relation to their NCAA Tournament chances.
"Last year, I think we had a pretty good home record," Pullen said. "This year, we just have to finish up strong because we have lost a few at home."
Crunch time has officially arrived in Manhattan, and the pressure is on. In the situation that K-State now finds itself, composure, maturity and confidence will likely mean the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT. From here on out, losing, especially at home, is not an option. And winning at least a couple more away from is probably a must, too.
K-State will get a can't-miss chance to regroup on Tuesday when it steps out of conference play to wrap-up its non-conference schedule against North Carolina Central. The newcomers to Division I basketball are 2-23 this season and are in the midst of a two-week break after losing to North Carolina State 87-59 on Feb. 3.
"We're not going to hang our heads like we the first couple games of the season," Sutton said. "We hung our heads. It took us two weeks to bounce back."
Though Martin and his players emphatically insist that watching a 16-point lead disappear before their eyes in a home loss to a rival won't cause a relapse in confidence level, the possibility, uncertain as it may be, is very real.
There's no denying it.
"That's the challenge with young kids, getting them to perform in games in front of 13,000 people and the noise the same way that they do in practice," Martin said.