Martin molding Wildcats in his own image
MANHATTAN, Kan. – He had witnessed a victory that placed his team in the discussion as one of the Big 12 Conference's elite, but Kansas State coach Frank Martin settled into a chair with the same intense focus. He sat behind a table after the Wildcats routed then-No. 7 Missouri by 16 points on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum. On each side of his shoulders, sophomore guard Will Spradling and junior guard Rodney McGruder prepared to join him in answering why Kansas State was effective.
An athletic department official approached the table with a microphone. He placed it inches from Martin's brown eyes, the same ones that appear on the cover of Kansas State's media guide in four separate photos with the captions, "INTENSITY," "DEDICATION," EXCITEMENT" and "PASSION." The coach turned to his left, toward McGruder, and wondered why the device was necessary.
"I'm the loud one," Martin said to McGruder with a smile.
Now in his fifth year at Kansas State, Martin's program continues to take on his personality. He has led the Wildcats to heights not seen since former coach Lon Kruger guided them to four straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1987 to 1990. In the process, Martin has grown from an unknown assistant coach under Bob Huggins to the leader who has turned Kansas State into a consistent Big 12 Conference contender.
The latest season in Martin's growth has included surprise. No. 18 Kansas State was a question going into its opener against Charleston Southern, a year after losing to Wisconsin in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
But the Wildcats have started to form an identity behind the play of emerging stars. McGruder scored a game-high 20 points in the rout of Missouri, lifting his team-best scoring average to 13.2 points per game before a key contest against No. 4 Baylor on Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum. Meanwhile, Spradling (11.5 points per game) gives the Wildcats another perimeter threat to complement the size of junior center Jordan Henriquez (7-foot), senior forward Jamar Samuels (6-7) and freshman forward Thomas Gipson (6-7).
In the postgame news conference Saturday, Martin looked toward the cameras before him and knew the Wildcats must make progress. He spoke about his team's recovery from an 18-point road loss to Kansas three days earlier. That night, Kansas State looked stunned in a charged environment.
"Every team has a focus and a concept that they've got to have to be good," Martin said. "You can't change that every day. You have to have a foundation for what you want to do. And these guys, all year long with (the exception of) one mishap, have been real good with their attention to detail defensively. It was good to see our guys get that back today."
Attention to detail is at the heart of what Martin is trying to build at Kansas State this season. It is seen in his steely glare directed at his players after a turnover. It is seen in his sharp yell from the bench – even when his team holds a double-digit lead. And it is seen, like on Monday afternoon, when he emerged from a practice session at Bramlage Coliseum and talked about continuing a culture that has produced three NCAA tournament appearances and at least 21 victories in each of his four seasons since replacing Huggins.
"You've got guys in the program who understand the importance of winning every day," Martin said.
"This team has that. They appreciate the guys before them. They appreciate who we've grown to become as a program."
The fact that Martin has reached a point where he is focused on growing a program is a surprise among some critics. After Huggins left for West Virginia before the 2007-08 season, some who followed Kansas State considered Martin – Huggins' top assistant and recruiting coordinator at the time – little more than a placeholder to retain top talent such as forwards Bill Walker and Michael Beasley. (Walker is now a fourth-year shooting guard with the New York Knicks, and Beasley is a fourth-year forward with the Minnesota Timberwolves.)
But Martin has molded the program in his image despite early doubts. And the results since – 95 victories through his first four years highlighted by an Elite Eight appearance in 2010 – have some wondering what, exactly, can be accomplished at "The Octagon of Doom."
This season, Kansas State has evolved as McGruder and Spradling have helped fill a void left by former guard Jacob Pullen's departure. Last season, Pullen served as the Wildcats' emotional leader in addition to pacing his team with an average of 20.2 points per game.
But with McGruder and Spradling, Kansas State's early performance in the post-Pullen era suggests it can create a four-team race atop the Big 12 with Kansas, Baylor and Missouri.
"If you don't like to compete, you're not going to be any good," Spradling said. "I'm a competitive person. Our team's competitive. We're ready to go out there."
For players' part, meeting top challenges in the Big 12 is more important than living up to the program's recent past. They know they are part of Kansas State's most productive run since Kruger and Jack Hartman roamed the sidelines in the 1970s and ‘80s. But, like Martin's focus in the moment, Spradling and others know they can only control the present. And much will be decided in the next 16 conference games.
"We try not to think about past experiences, because when you're trying to compete with the past – that's when you lose sight of what's in front of you right now," McGruder said. "So we just try to work hard and try to accomplish the things we can accomplish off working hard."
And that emphasis on work, in part, has allowed Martin to continue Kansas State's steady rise.
Back at the postgame news conference Saturday, Martin addressed his team's improved play. Against its in-state rival, Kansas State was outrebounded by 24 in a performance he called "out of character." Meanwhile, against Missouri, the Wildcats established themselves early as the most physical team before forcing 14 turnovers and ending with 14 more rebounds.
"That shouldn't fluctuate," Martin said of his team's effort. "People … who follow basketball across the country say that K-State is the hardest-playing team in the country. Other coaches say that.
"People don't say that about a team, because you don't play hard every once in awhile. They say that because you play hard all the time. We didn't play hard against Kansas. We didn't do our jobs."
The observation is an example of Martin's demands. Over time, he has created a culture of expectation beyond the fall on a campus known for the rise of its football program.
But there is work to be done inside Bramlage Coliseum. Kansas State has yet to win a regular-season Big 12 title or a Big 12 tournament championship under Martin. And the Wildcats still fight for visibility with Kansas' storied program located less than a two-hour drive to the east.
"We've grown in playing with each other," said Henriquez of this year's team. He is averaging 7.6 points per game this season. "Whether it's practice or during the offseason or the preseason or on the court together playing, we've grown together. And that's changed a lot."
In a little more than four years, Kansas State has changed under Martin. The Loud One has shaped the program to his personality.