March 20, 2008

Cats step into spotlight vs. Trojans

OMAHA, Neb. -- Kansas State players were already motivated to face Southern California in the NCAA Tournament first-round game. But watching five minutes of ESPN and spending the last few days with first-year coach Frank Martin have only fueled the No. 11-seeded Wildcats' fire as they prepare to meet the sixth-seeded Trojans on Thursday night at the Qwest Center.

"You watch TV, ESPN, you watch all these different channels," Michael Beasley said, "no one has us to win this game. I think it's up to us to prove everyone wrong."

Big 12 Player of the Year Beasley, fellow freshman star Bill Walker and Martin met with reporters during a news conference Wednesday afternoon before the Wildcats embarked on a 40-minute practice in front of a few thousand spectators.

While a majority of discussion surrounded Walker's meeting with USC freshman superstar O.J. Mayo -- a topic with an intriguing flavor that has spurred national attention -- Walker insisted the story about the lifelong best friends shouldn't overshadow the importance of the outing for both teams, as the Wildcats will play in their first NCAA Tournament game since 1996 and seek their first tournament win since 1988.

"If you're not excited about being in this tournament, if that doesn't motivate you enough, then you shouldn't be here anyway," Walker said.

When K-State, 20-11, celebrated its tournament announcement on Sunday, it seemingly rejuvenated a squad coming off a 63-60 loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals, marking its sixth loss in nine games. USC, 21-11, suffered a 57-54 loss to Pac-10 champ UCLA in the semifinals but has won 11 of its last 16 games.

"It's kind of funny that two teams that were so highly regarded ended up playing each other in the first round," Martin said. "I know it's going to be a heck of a challenge for us."

It will mark Martin's first NCAA Tournament appearance as head coach. The 41-year-old Martin made back-to-back tournament appearances as an assistant coach at Cincinnati under Bob Huggins in 2004 and 2005. The Bearcats didn't make the NCAA draw in 2006 and the Wildcats were left out last season before Huggins left for West Virginia during the offseason.

USC coach Tim Floyd said his NCAA Tournament experience - 10 appearances in his first 15 years in Division I - doesn't give him an advantage over Martin, though.

"I don't think it's any advantage," Floyd said. "Frank's been around. Unless he had earmuffs on with Bob Huggins all those years, he's taken a lot from it. I remember Steve Fisher taking over at Michigan for (Bill) Frieder and storming through the tournament."

Like Martin, Floyd was also curious about the pairing in the first round.

"I'm still trying to figure out how they got an 11 seed finishing third in a league as strong as the Big 12," Floyd said. "I view this as a team that you would play in the Sweet 16 because of their talent. I don't know that anybody in the first round has a greater challenge than Davon Jefferson and Taj Gibson have with the tandem of Walker and Beasley.

"Both guys are capable of having 40-point nights. In Beasley's case, a 50-point night."


No. 11 Kansas State (20-11)

6:10 p.m.

No. 6 Southern Cal (21-11)


Pregame Notes
Tip: 6:10 p.m. CST
Where: Qwest Center Omaha 17,560
Head Coaches: Frank Martin 1st yr (20-11 overall) … Tim Floyd 3rd yr (63-36) 15th year overall (306-166)
Radio: K-State Sports Network
Wyatt Thompson, Play-by-Play; Stan Weber, analyst

The network distributes its digital-quality audio stream via satellite to over 31 affiliates across the Sunflower State, including local Manhattan affiliates KMAN (1350 AM) and KMKF (101.5 FM). K-State sports can also be heard on Sirius Satellite Radio. The pregame show takes to the airwaves one hour prior to each tipoff.
Series: Kansas State leads 3-1


Kansas State 20-11








Clent Stewart (6-4, 190)





Blake Young (6-2, 195)





Dominique Sutton (6-5, 220)





Bill Walker (6-6, 220)





Michael Beasley (6-10, 235)



Southern Cal (21-11)








Daniel Hackett (6-5, 205)





Dwight Lewis (6-5, 215)





O.J. Mayo (6-5, 200)





Davon Jefferson (6-8, 215)





Taj Gibson (6-9, 225)



The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Mayo has felt Beasley's wrath in the past. Beasley beat Mayo and Walker's AAU team twice and once in high school.

"I have a short-term memory," Mayo smiled. "I don't remember those games."

Beasley and Walker combine for 42.3 points per game as the fourth-leading scoring duo in the nation. Both agreed their first inkling that the Wildcats "belonged" came when a police escort led the team bus in Omaha.

But both contend they could sense the importance of the Wildcats' feat during practice in recent days.

They each saw it in Martin's eyes.

"Just the last couple of practices we've had, just the intensity has been unbelievable," Walker said. "(Martin's) desire has gone to another level. I've never seen Frank like that. He's excited about this. He realizes we have a chance to play again. He's thankful for it. We are, too. We're just going to go out and compete and play it all."

Upon learning about the tournament announcement, Beasley said he would look to Martin to grasp the day-to-day life of playing in March Madness.

The 19-year-old didn't expect this, though, from a fiery head coach who's already determined to get the most out of his young players.

"Frank's intensity has raised to another level," Beasley said. "I've never seen Frank like this, either. Just the fire in his eyes and every time he speaks, every time he talks about a win or what we need to do to win -- it's just been amazing to see how hyped he is for this game."

Martin said it was his job to lead his team, which finished third in the Big 12 for the program's highest league finish in 19 years, and appreciated the effort from his team, which features five freshmen and six total newcomers. K-State has recorded back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in 20 years.

"I can tell you I'll never be disappointed in those kids in our locker room," Martin said. "Two years ago we were brought in here to have the opportunity to play in this tournament. Last year, we just missed. This year we finish third in the Big 12. We had two home wins against Top 10 teams and defeated Kansas for the first time in 24 years. We're back in the NCAA Tournament.

"I'm extremely proud of what they've done for us."

K-State maintained a loyal following during one of the most exciting seasons in recent history. Although the tournament site is listed at 146 miles from Manhattan, it remains unclear how many of the Wildcats' contingency will attend the contest as Creighton season-ticket holders gobbled up tickets by the thousands even before the announcement. The Wildcats sold all 550 of their NCAA-allotted tickets and 200 additional tickets returned from other participating schools.

Beasley isn't worried, though.

"I would expect a lot of people to be here, taking off from what they have to do to help support us," he said.

Asked if he felt slighted at all that the Trojans had to travel to Omaha for the first-round matchup given the location's proximity to the K-State campus, Floyd quipped, "That's a great observation. One that I won't comment on."

USC guard Daniel Hackett said fan support shouldn't be a factor.

"The NCAA decided (the location)," Hackett said. "It's a tournament game. We've played in the all-star environment already and it got us ready for this. So whoever is going to show up, it doesn't matter. The game's being played on the court."

Even off the court, though, Martin believes he can tell his team already enjoys the NCAA Tournament experience.

And that they plan to return. Win or lose on Thursday.

"This is the first time they've been exposed to (NCAA Tournament) things," Martin said. "That's the greatness of this. See, every kid who's been exposed to this, guess what they want? They want to be here again because that's what you compete for. You want to be on the elite stage of college basketball. Every kid who's been exposed to this in our program will work even harder to make sure we continue to get back to this tournament."

But Walker believes K-State has some business to tend to first.

"I feel like we're the underdogs," he said. "Who picked us to get this far, period? So we'll just use that and go out there and change some peoples' minds."

And for the Wildcats' sake, keep a memorable season alive.

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