March 13, 2008

Newcomers still shine without big names

Although Kansas State freshmen Michael Beasley and Bill Walker cast a mighty shadow, the Mike & Bill show hasn't hit the hardwood without some backing from the Wildcats' other first-year players this season. While the star duo routinely captures the spotlight, the contributions by other new faces, including Jacob Pullen, aided in squad's highest league finish since 1988-89 and could help give the Wildcats their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a dozen years as well.

A popular expectation persists, of course, that No. 3 seed K-State will deliver another installment of the Mike & Bill show when the Wildcats face the Texas A&M-Iowa State winner in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal game at 8:20 p.m. Friday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

Seems that Beasley and Walker, the headliners to one of the nation's top recruiting classes entering the season, simply don't have anyone else around them. At least, that's how one popular national theory goes, causing Pullen to chuckle.

"We don't take that as disrespect (when critics) say the rest of us aren't that good," Pullen said. "It's just that Mike and Bill are that good if people are saying that."

Among their many accomplishments, Beasley, the Big 12 Player of the Year, and Walker, a third-team All-Big 12 selection, form the top scoring tandem in K-State and Big 12 history in averaging 42.5 points between them, which currently ranks fourth nationally this season. No duo among BCS teams has been better.

"Mike and Bill," Pullen said, "are always going to be Mike and Bill."

Here's an idea: Take Beasley and Walker out of the equation.

Say what?

Seriously. Despite the numerous piņata swipes by the so-called experts, a pool of young talent still remains.

Pullen and fellow freshmen Fred Brown, Dominique Sutton and Ron Anderson, and junior college transfer Andre Gilbert average 25.1 points and 11.8 rebounds to go along with 6.9 assists to 5.2 turnovers in 121 combined performances with 40 combined starts.

K-State first-year coach Frank Martin believes such numbers illustrate the success by his other first-year players in tackling the daunting learning curve that tends to become a season-long X-factor for a many inexperienced players across the country.

In a league that features the likes of Big 12 All-Rookie selections Blake Griffin at Oklahoma, James Anderson at Oklahoma State, DeAndre Jordan at Texas A&M, and Newcomer of the Year DeMarre Carroll at Missouri, the Wildcats' class of first-year players, even without mentioning the gargantuan efforts by Beasley and Walker, still holds its own (see chart).

Only the first-year classes at Oklahoma State and Nebraska rank higher than K-State in scoring average.

And that's without including the Mike & Bill show.

That's saying something.

"That's why we recruited them. They're good players," Martin said. "Most freshmen in most programs have a certain learning curve they have to go through but they're not as responsible for winning and losing early in their seasons as our freshmen have been. This whole responsibility thing has been forced upon them and they've done a great job accepting it, representing our school in the right way and winning 10 games in the hardest conference in the country.

"That shows the kind of job these kids have done."

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