Head coach Frank Martin and his Kansas State players have shown a knack for playing close games as of late. The only problem being the fact that K-State can't seem to find that same knack for winning them. There are no moral victories here. The Wildcats have dropped their last two games by a combined four points, making Sunday's road meeting with Oregon as close to a must win as any game at this time of the season can be.
"Every game on the schedule is on there for a reason," Martin said. "You have to prepare for every game to win. You don't go into any game saying 'Oh, let's go have fun.' Anybody who approaches it that was is crap."
According to Martin, losing third straight, be it by one or 21, is not an option at this juncture. Games like this Sunday's in Eugene, Ore., are the building blocks of NCAA Tournament resumes, after all, and in the end, that's what the non-conference schedule is all about.
Early season or not, these are trying times, and with a road game against a Pac 10 team just days away, this is no time for the young Wildcats, which are mostly comprised as sophomores, to start questioning their ability win the close ones.
"It's a long season," Martin said. "If you start hanging your head at any time during the season, you have no chance to succeed the following day. Our feelings are hurt. We didn't go to Vegas being receptive to going 0-2. I think we've learned. We've used it to be as much of a teaching tool as we can."
Still, Martin warns that one shouldn't get a learning opportunity confused with a moral victory. In fact, the second-year head coach has never understood why some contend it takes defeat to teach a lesson.
In Martin's mind, the lesson here is simple: "Stop losing."
"We tried to show our guys the different reasons why we couldn't find success in the final score in those two games," he said. "When you have empty offensive possessions against teams like Kentucky that are so athletic and so long, they take your bad shots and your turnovers and convert them into easy baskets. At the end of the day, whichever team gets the most easy baskets is going to win the game. We've tried to make our guys understand that."
"We've got a lot of work to do," sophomore forward Jamar Samuels said.
All that 'work' Samuels spoke of starts now, and while Sunday's opponent hasn't looked like the team it has been in the recent past, dropping games to Oakland and Utah, those who have scouted the Ducks say their 3-5 record can be quite deceiving.
In fact, the two teams that will take the court together in Oregon as part of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series aren't all that dissimilar.
"I think they're playing very similar to how they played last year," Martin said. "I think Joevan Catron is accepting more responsibility, just like we have some guys who are accepting more responsibility. With (Michael Dunigan), they have a presence at the rim that not too many people in the country have. In Tajuan Porter, they have that upperclassman guard that you have to have to ever have a chance to succeed."
The outcome of the game could hinge on something as simple as which quad has grown the most during the early season. The Wildcats have been at their best this season when four or more players score in double digits, and balance will have to be the goal once again this Saturday if K-State hopes to avoid falling into a three-game slide.
"At the end of the day, it's a team game and it's about having five guys on the court playing as one," Martin said. "I think we're continuing to grow in that respect."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Sunday's game will be a meeting between two teams still searching for their identity after losing some key players in the offseason. Both the Ducks and Wildcats have shown flashes of brilliance in 2008, but each has also fallen into offensive slumps, during which they both appear to lack a go-to scorer. The Wildcats are coming off of back-to-back losses away from Manhattan, and to avoid making it three in a row, they will have to show growth both offensively and mentally. K-State's defense will, at the very least, keep it in this game until the end, but the final outcome will rest heavily of the mindset of a young team playing on the road. The Ducks have lost three in a row, two of which have come blowout fashion, and their mental state heading into another big game against a capable opponent must also be questioned
WHO'S HOT FOR THE WILDCATS: Sure Jacob Pullen made some defensive mistakes in his last appearance, but no Wildcat is hotter offensively. The sophomore guard has scored 20 or more points in three straight games and could make it four against an Oregon team that has fallen asleep on the defensives end at times this season..
WHO'S HOT FOR THE DUCKS: Oregon freshman guard Garrett Sim erupted for 28 points in the Ducks last game, going 5 for 6 from the floor and 10 for 14 from the line. His backcourt-mate Tajuan Porter, who has taken on a larger role this season, scored 14 points against Utah after posting 11 in a loss to No. 8 Texas.