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March 20, 2009Kansas State needed a nail-biting overtime to get past Illinois State. But what would March be without a little hair-pulling madness as well? For as much as Frank Martin crumpled the excuse card deep inside his pants pocket during the postgame news conference as the head coach instead hammered home the significance of the his team's latest win, alas, time and distance are no allies as the Wildcats travel to face San Diego State in a National Invitational Tournament second-round game Friday night.
K-State left Manhattan Municipal Airport at 10 a.m. Thursday. At 1,577 miles, the Wildcats' voyage to San Diego is the longest haul for any of the five visiting NIT teams dealing with a two-day turnaround between games.
Of those five visiting teams, K-State is the only one with this disadvantage: San Diego State had one more day of rest than its visiting opponent, the Aztecs having raced past Weber State 65-49 at home Tuesday while the Wildcats squeaked past the Redbirds 83-79 in overtime at Bramlage Coliseum Wednesday night.
In one breath, Martin wished the NIT had considered such logistics. In the next breath, he declined to use any of it as an excuse, although it remains unknown exactly how his team responded to 4 p.m. practice Thursday at the 5,100-capacity Jenny Craig Pavilion, some 18 hours after the final horn sounded on a wild ride against defiant and talented Illinois State.
"I wish the people that organized the event would've thought about us a little bit -- 'Well, if they win, we're going to send them across the country and maybe we ought to give them an extra day' -- but that didn't go into the thought process," Martin said. "But who cares? Who cares?"
"If I told you that it's going to be hard and the travel is difficult after a hard game like (Wednesday), then I've just created a safety net for (the Wildcats) to think it's OK to go out there and not be good," he continued. "No, we're going to go out there and play our hearts out. We're going to go out there and fight. We're going to be ready to be sharp in practice and we're going to get to the game and lay it on the line and give it our best."
Martin certainly got his best from the Wildcats, led by Jacob Pullen, who had seven of his career-high 32 points in overtime, driving and hitting big shot after big shot to go along with six 3-pointers.
K-State entered 0-11 when trailing in the last five minutes of regulation; Illinois State 21-2.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats floated off the court with a 22-11 record, giving them one more win than a year ago, and needing one more win for Martin to tie Bob Huggins' 23 victories in 2006-07, when this whole Madness in Manhattan thing began.
"To quote Huggs, this is what he told me on the phone (Tuesday). He said, 'Frank, you've got to do one of two things: You've got to score one more than them and if you can't score one more than them, then hold them to one less than you,'" Martin said. "That's what it's all about at this time of year."
Top-seeded San Diego State improved to 24-9 overall by hurting Weber State from the start. A 22-4 scoring run gave the Aztecs a 38-17 lead at the half and they continued to cruise despite playing their fourth game in five days. Senior Lorrenzo Wade, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward and the team's leading scorer at 14.7 points a game, had 20 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double in four contests.
Steve Fisher, who has guided San Diego State to seven postseason appearances in his 10 seasons, looks to give the Aztecs their 25th victory this season, something the program has never achieved in its 87-year history. In doing so, the Aztecs would also advance to a third-round postseason tournament game for the first time in history, as well.
"We will have a team in Kansas State that will be formidable," Fisher said Thursday. "We're glad we've got them here."
San Diego State is 50-8 in its last 58 home games, including 14-2 at Cox Arena this season, where it averaged a crowd of 6,807 in the 12,414-capacity arena. But Cox Arena is a host site for Women's NCAA Tournament first-round games, thus moving Friday's Wildcats-Aztecs contest to the University of San Diego's Jenny Craig Pavilion, which reportedly can become noisy given its lowered roof. The Aztecs played one game at the venue last season.
"We need our fans," Fisher said. "We're going to need to pack that building over there to make it a huge homecourt advantage for San Diego State."
As of Thursday, fewer than 100 tickets remained as the teams meet for the fourth time in history and for the first time since K-State beat San Diego State 79-68 in a neutral-site contest in Fresno on Nov. 27, 1987.
Moments after he played a team-high 38 minutes against Illinois State, Pullen said, "I'm not tired," adding, "It's time to go again."
"If I say I'm tired and you all print it, San Diego State is going to go, 'Darn, they're tired. Let's go after them. Let's press them,'" Pullen said. "I'm ready to go to San Diego. That's what we wanted. We wanted to go to San Diego."
But they hope their season doesn't end until they hit New York.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Denis Clemente playfully tried to run away from a reporter in the locker room. The Big 12 Newcomer of the Year knows he's in a rut. Since a 33-point outburst on 12 of 19 shooting at Missouri, Clemente has gone cold, connecting on just 22 of 73 (30.1 percent) shot attempts, including 8 for 28 on 3-pointers in the last five contests. Still, Clemente dished out a season-high 10 assists against the Redbirds.
"I'm just not making shots, you know. I can't lose my mind," he said. "I need to run the team. I had 10 assists."
Any late-season fatigue?
"I'm not tired," he said. "I'm the fastest guy in the country, that's for sure. Have you seen somebody with that (speed)?"
Who knows whether the Aztecs have, but their poise starts with senior point guard Richie Williams, a 5-foot-10, 162-pounder who had eight points and one assist against Weber State, and is the Mountain West Conference all-time leader with 469 assists and 237 steals. Fisher saw the Wildcats' ability to defend and race on tape. He believes he has a solution.
"There's a fine line between being quick and being out of control," Fisher said. "We need to be quick and under control when they run to double-team us and do things that they do fullcourt defensively. Richie is going to be the catalyst for that."
Fisher likens K-State to fellow Mountain West foe UNLV in how the Wildcats guard defensively. As for offensive rebounds? Fisher offers no comparison.
"(K-State has) a very aggressive pressure defense, extremely physical," he said. "They are the best offensive rebounding team we will have played all season. That pretty much describes the job description: keep them off the glass, take care of the ball and get a good shot every time down (the court)."
Fisher finds comfort in his veteran squad, featuring five seniors, including four that are expected to start Friday.
"I'm glad we have five seniors, led by Richie, who has a point guard as been there and done that against heavy pressure," Fisher said. "I'm confident we will handle their pressure and do a good job."
Fisher believes his team has faced opponents similar to the Wildcats. They hope to use that to their advantage.
"We won't be rattled," Williams said.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE WILDCATS: If indeed this was the last time Jacob Pullen played in Bramlage as a sophomore, he left a dazzling impression on fans. He was disappointed that he didn't finish on more of his drives to the basket (he finished 10 of 23 from the floor) but made six of 13 3-pointers en route to his career-high 32 points. As he sniffled and occasionally wiped his nose after his performance, somebody asked Pullen if he was suffering from a cold or just allergies, to which Martin deadpanned, "He's allergic to the free-throw line," prompting the biggest laughs of the night. Pullen made just six of 11 free throws against the Redbirds.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE AZTECS: Tired legs? Not for Lorrenzo Wade, who has posted 20, 24, 12 and 20 points in his last four outings during a five-day stretch. The second-team all-Mountain West selection has recorded a double-double in two of the last four games and went 27-for-54 (50 percent) from the floor during the span. The Aztecs' leading scorer at 14.7 points a game, Wade made a career-high four 3-pointers against UNLV on March 12 to start his busy past week.