MANHATTAN (AP) — The most encouraging statistic for Frank Martin this week had nothing to do with field goal percentage, assist-to-turnover ratios or rebounding margin.
It had to do with the number of guys he had running stairs.
The famously volatile Kansas State coach didn’t interrupt practice the past two days even once to banish some miscreant to the stairs running from the court to the upper corridor at Bramlage Coliseum, the stark white steps that serve as punishment for lack of focus and intensity.
Half the team was on them last week.
The 25th-ranked Wildcats have lost three of four to start Big 12 play heading into Wednesday night’s game against Texas. Another defeat and Kansas State (12-4, 1-3) will be out of the race for the league title before it’s truly begun, if Martin’s bunch isn’t already.
“Sometimes there’s no answer,” Martin said in a back corner of the arena after practice Tuesday night. “Sometimes as a parent you raise your child, and you say, ‘Why the heck did that happen?’ But that’s life. Nothing comes easy.”
Even after losing Jacob Pullen, one of the best all-around players in school history, Kansas State showed early in the season that it could challenge for conference superiority.
It won a tough road game against Virginia Tech, knocked off Alabama on a neutral court and went to double-overtime in a loss to West Virginia. It finished up the non-conference slate with a win over Long Beach State, an expected NCAA tournament darling, and a tournament title in Hawaii.
But things have unraveled since Big 12 play started.
Kansas State was pounded by its in-state rival, a humbling 67-49 defeat at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse. The Wildcats rebounded to hand Missouri its first defeat of the season, but then came a loss to Baylor in which they blew a big second-half lead, and then last Saturday’s meltdown in Norman.
The Wildcats looked sluggish, disinterested and discombobulated against Oklahoma, rarely so much as challenging for the lead in an 82-73 loss.
“Frank has been stressing our field goal percentage defense, how it’s the worst in the Big 12,” said Rodney McGruder, who leads the Wildcats in scoring at 14.6 points per game. “That’s something we have to address. It’s just about defensive pressure.”
The Sooners proved to be a pretty good example. They shot 54.9 percent while piling up the most points in a game against a team from one of the major conferences.
While it’s easy to blame struggles on the offensive end on things like mechanics, or the sets that an offense is running, it’s not so easy to diagnose problems on defense. More often than not, it comes down to hustle — to focus and intensity, the buzzwords that define the Kansas State program.
“We’ve really turned it around,” sophomore guard Will Spradling said. “People just weren’t bringing out any intensity. We were having four or five guys running the stairs, and that only left us with 12 guys to practice. We didn’t have the competitiveness that we normally have.”
Spradling believes the Wildcats have it figured out in time for Texas.
Good thing, too, because the Longhorns (12-5, 2-2) are starting to show that they’ll have something to say about the eventual conference champion before the season is finished.
After early losses to Oregon State and North Carolina State, Rick Barnes’ team has started to find its stride. It beat Oklahoma State and Texas A&M before playing Missouri tight into the second half over the weekend, behind the exemplary play of junior guard J’Covan Brown.
Brown leads the Big 12 in scoring at better than 19 points per game.
Kansas State understands that its season is already hanging in the balance. The chance to still compete for a Big 12 title is fading, though still a possibility. And its chances of landing another NCAA tournament bid could take a dangerous hit with another loss to an unranked team.
There’s pressure, Martin said, but also opportunity.
The game Wednesday night is another chance to prove that the Wildcats have indeed regrouped.
“We’ve dealt with adversity,” Martin said. “Now we have to come out and see what happens.”