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January 27, 2012Don't be fooled by the words coming from behind the podium.
The pregame ovation will probably be heartwarming for some. There may even be a mini-ceremony, but Lon Kruger's return to Manhattan is a narrative that means little to Kansas State players.
The former Wildcat player and coach's name hangs in the Bramlage Coliseum rafters today and current K-State players know all the right things to say when asked. Rodney McGruder called him an "all-time great" on Thursday and Martavious Irving said the Oklahoma head coach serves as a reminder that people who leave K-State "go on to do great things."
But deep down, under the interview cliches, they have to be getting sick of the routine. Irving and McGruder have answered the questions often enough and have piled on the praise before and after three previous meetings with Kruger-coached teams.
This time, it's less about him than ever before, though. This time, it's about Kansas State present beating Kansas State past. Frank Martin's team will fake their way through the usual platitudes. The players are well practiced. But there's no confusion about what sits at the forefront of their minds days before Kruger will make his celebrated return to Manhattan.
"The game means a lot to me personally because they beat us," McGruder said. "It was like a slap in the face how bad we got beat. This is like getting some revenge. That's the best thing about this new round-robin schedule, you get to get your payback. I like that."
Kruger is the furthest thing from the collective mind in this locker room. For players, Saturday's game with 12-7 Oklahoma is about avenging the 82-73 loss the Sooners (2-5 in Big 12 play) handed the Wildcats on Jan. 14. And for Martin, the larger storyline is the hunt for another win, a win that would be another step in the process of making sports radio more tolerable.
Because even now, with a 15-4 record and a No. 22 national ranking, the airways are no place for K-State's basketball coach's ears.
"I made the cardinal sin of putting on sports talk and heard someone say that when we played at Oklahoma State, we weren't any good," Martin said. "He said that Oklahoma State was just not very good. Then they said that the reason we beat (Texas Tech) was because Texas Tech is just not very good. I just shook my head and switched to FM to listen to some music and get me in a better mood."
Things have changed since K-State allowed Oklahoma to shoot 54 percent in Norman. The Wildcats are not coming off of a contested home loss to Baylor. Instead, they're riding a three-game winning streak, defense is being played, and Martin says the vibes are different. To him, that last bit means the most.
"At a practice before (the first game), you'd see a lot of hanging heads, bad body language and whining," he said. "If you come see us now, you won't see much of that. You'll see a bunch of guys who understand."
A reminder of what's important this weekend is on film. McGruder says he sees the Sooners outworking he and his teammates every time the game tape comes on the screen. In the film room and on the practice floor, there's no discussion of Lon Kruger. Nobody gazes at his jersey in the rafters, and there's no tutoring session on the opposing head coach's contributions to K-State.
They address it -- over and over -- when asked, but the significance stops there. To Martin and his team Saturday's contest, like every other game, is about the Wildcats. Any added weight has nothing to do with nostalgia. That stuff -- whatever is left of it, anyway -- has its place in stands.
To the guys who will put on home jerseys and play a basketball game on Saturday evening, Kruger is, first and foremost, an old guy with a clipboard who helped embarrass them just weeks ago.
"It was a slap in the face," Irving said. "That game flipped the switch on us. That game showed us that we need to play every game like it's Kansas."
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