March 19, 2008

Season is now all about the Cats

OMAHA, Neb. -- Set aside the talk of matchups, multiple defenses and the entire Kansas State is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996 storyline. And if possible, set aside the hype of the Bill Walker/Michael Beasley match up with Southern California's O.J. Mayo. Shove it all away for a moment and understand one thing about this year's K-State basketball team.

It doesn't matter what the opponent, what the venue or what the setting of the game. This K-State team can play with any team, anytime it wants to. It's the "want to" that's been the problem for the Wildcats.

Sputtering down the stretch by losing six of its last nine, gimping through so-so defensive efforts and lackadaisical rebounding games, K-State wasn't so much beaten by its competition as self defeated.

The big question the day before the 11th-seeded Wildcats take on the sixth-seeded USC Trojans in the first round of the NCAA Tournament's first round is this: Will K-State rediscover itself?

If so, then the Wildcats will return to Omaha's Qwest Center to play a second-round game on Saturday. If not, then the Cats will make a one-and-done showing in this tournament as they did in the Big 12 Tournament last week.

And all that preseason talk about winning championships? It would turn out to be nothing more than talk.

"It's the NCAA Tournament, but it's about focusing now," freshman guard Jacob Pullen said. "We're playing for our lives so we have to take it one game at a time."

When K-State's name popped up during CBS's selection show last Sunday, it not only set off a small party for the Wildcats, it slapped them across the face. This is it. This is what college basketball is all about. Everything else, well, it's soup and salad. The main course is about to be served.

"It is an experience of a lifetime and for me, in my four years, it's the only time I get to experience it," senior guard Clent Stewart said. "We just need to relax and take everything in stride. Obviously, at the beginning of the game there will be a lot of hype and excitement, but we need to stick together and do the things we need to do to win."

The desire to pull together in the common cause called the NCAA Tournament might actually catch this newcomer-laden team's attention. The process started not long after the KSU-USC matchup was announced. The coaches shared with their players the facts about their dwindling defensive performances.

That once-ferocious K-State defense had turned inconsistent. The hit-or-miss defensive showings would have to stop or the Wildcats' season would come to an unflattering halt on national television a couple hours after the game tips off at 6:10 p.m. Thursday night.

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