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Focused Pullen makes K-State a threat
The season, Jake Pullen’s swan song in Manhattan, Kan., was quickly slipping away. There were the suspensions and the defections, and Kansas State’s senior and preseason first-team All-American was frustrated, much of it stemming from his teammates and their lack of experience and maturity.
But Pullen admittedly had some growing up to do of his own.
"I was so worried about my numbers,” said Pullen, who went for his fifth consecutive 20-plus point night in Monday’s 75-70 win at No. 7 Texas. "I was thinking about the next level — and it affected me.”
"I think he was thinking more about the league than the team,” chipped in fellow senior Curtis Kelly. "But after all the tribulations we’ve been though, he showed that he cares more about us — and winning — than himself.”
Pullen had his off nights early in the season, such as the 1-for-12 shooting performance in the loss to Duke back in November. But overall his numbers remained impressive.
He was doing what all the skeptics, who included plenty of NBA types, wanted to see — being a true point guard. They knew he could score, but they wanted to see if he could distribute.
But it wasn’t translating into enough wins.
Finally, following a Jan. 12 loss to Colorado at home, Wildcats coach Frank Martin called his star into his office and showed him tape of two games from a year ago — and then followed it up with tape from losses to Oklahoma State on Jan. 8 and also from the previous night against the Buffs.
"I was just walking around against Colorado and Oklahoma State,” Pullen admitted. "I wasn’t aggressive.”
"I needed to see it to understand it,” he added.
Then Pullen went into the locker room and got his teammates together and took accountability for his actions.
"You’re all accountable,” Pullen said. "And so am I.”
"I’m going to stop my bull****,” Kelly recalled Pullen saying to him.
Then Pullen began to play like the first-team All-American that so many expected going into the season.
This was a team that was in everyone’s top 5 in the preseason, but many forgot that it wasn’t the same one that went to the Elite Eight a year ago.
Pullen and Kelly were back, but the rest of the team was full of young, unproven guys. Denis Clemente, Luis Colon and Dominique Sutton — three starters from that Elite Eight squad — were gone.
"Everyone around Jake was basically new,” Martin said.
Martin takes plenty of the blame for the early-season struggles, maintaining that the offense didn’t allow Pullen to excel and kept him stagnant.
"He was frustrated,” Martin said. "The ball didn’t move – and Jake didn’t move. That’s on me.”
But this was a team clearly finding its way.
There was the suspension to Kelly to begin the season, then both Kelly and Pullen were hit with NCAA suspensions for receiving impermissible benefits at a department store.
Through it all, Pullen was hell-bent on trying to show people he could be a point guard at the next level.
"And, because of it, I was passive,” he said.
Then Pullen and the Wildcats lost to Colorado again — this time in Boulder exactly one month after the first meeting between the two teams.
This time it wasn’t just about the loss. It was how Kansas State suffered defeat. Pullen was stripped cleanly by Alec Burks in the final minute with the game on the line.
He got a three-way call at 6 a.m. the next morning from his two older brothers.
"They told me to take over games,” Pullen said. "Don’t play for the stat sheet.”
Since then, Pullen has been as dominant a scorer as any player in the nation — even more than that guy known as The Jimmer.
Pullen is averaging 27.2 points per game since that loss — and the Wildcats have reeled off five straight wins.
There was the 16-point rout over Kansas, the 10-point victory against Missouri — and the five-point road win against Texas on Monday.
"Everyone wrote us off,” Pullen said. "They said our season was down the drain.”
There was even that comment that gained Pullen national attention when, following the home loss to Colorado, he said he would refuse to play in the NIT.
"I was just emotional,” Pullen said on Monday night. "Of course I’d play in the NIT.”
But he doesn’t have to worry about that these days. Not after his Wildcats have reeled off seven of their past eight games and are 21-9 overall and 9-6 in Big 12 play with one game remaining.
Pullen is leading the Wildcats back to the Big Dance — and he’s got some help from his teammates now.
"He doesn’t talk about the NBA at all now,” Kelly said.
"The numbers don’t matter to me anymore,” Pullen added.
At least not the ones next to his name on the stat sheet.
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