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Kansas State secures No. 5 seed in Southeast Regional
Wildcats play No. 12 seed Utah on Thursday in Tucson, Ariz.
Pullen drives
Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen, who earlier in the season vowed that he would not play in the NIT, if the Wildcats didn't make the NCAA Tournament, got his wish as they are the No. 5 seed in the Southeast Regional. - photo by The Associated Press

MANHATTAN — With victories over No. 2 Kansas and No. 10 Texas and a late-season turnaround that included a six-game winning streak, Kansas State expected to be looked upon favorably by the NCAA selection committee.

The Wildcats were not disappointed. They're the No. 5 seed in the Southeast regional and will play 12th-seeded Utah State on Thursday in Tucson, Ariz.

"They respected the fact that we played a strong schedule, respected the fact that our kids played real well coming down the stretch and grew as a team," said coach Frank Martin. "Every game's hard in the tournament. There's not an easy game. Utah State, any team that can win (30) games in a season is real good, and I'm just ecstatic for our kids."

Led by guard Jacob Pullen, the Wildcats (22-10) overcame a string of setbacks, including the defection of big men Freddy Asprilla and Wally Judge, the six-game suspension of senior forward Curtis Kelly and the switching of offenses in January.

They also overcame the three-game suspension of Pullen, their senior leader who along with Kelly was penalized for accepting improper discounts at a Manhattan clothing store. But if they can stay alive long enough in the tournament, Pullen needs only 44 points to break Mike Evans' career school scoring record.

Utah State (30-3) was 15-1 in the Western Athletic Conference.

"With us, it's all about matchups," Pullen said. "And hopefully, after we get some film and some scouting reports, we can understand the matchup with Utah State."

Utah State senior forward Tai Wesley was named WAC player of the year after averaging 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds.

"I have seen them play," said Pullen. "They get the late-night games on ESPN because they are on the West Coast. They have a really good big player, with Tai Wesley being the player of the year in their conference. They play a really good matchup zone and rebound the ball especially well. That is the good thing about West Coast teams: They can shoot the ball well from all five spots. It should be a good matchup."

A year ago as a No. 2 seed, the Wildcats came within one game of the Final Four. So tournament experience is one thing Kelly and Pullen can impart to the younger players.

"I have been to the NCAA tournament three out of the four years that I have been in college," said Kelly. "We know that every play is important and that every game counts. I think I understand that more than the younger guys. I think we will be pretty dialed in when we get on the floor. Jake and I will definitely keep us focused because we know the seriousness of the NCAA tournament and we know that we have to play to survive. I want to survive, and I know that Jake will want to survive."

Pullen, the Wildcats' floor leader, will take pains to explain to the younger players the importance of taking NCAA tournament games one play at a time.

"We have a lot of experience, so we understand how tough it is to wake up in the morning and play a team that you have never played before," he said. "You have to figure out what they do and what their tendencies are. But hopefully as a team we are going to understand the importance of every game."

After their first game in the Big 12 tournament on Friday when the Wildcats lost to Colorado for the third time this year, Martin gave them two days off from practice.

"We're happy we don't have to play a Big 12 team at least for a week," Martin said. "We're excited. We understand the next time we don't find success in a game, our season's over. I think we've got enough guys on our team that went through it last year that they'll do a good job of preparing this week."