As No. 3 Kansas State remained focused on avoiding the antagonist role in an underdog story during its 75-61 win over James Madison, one of its own began mounting an upset bid of his own. Nick Russell, who was not so long ago the unlikeliest of options to occupy major minutes in the guard spot across from preseason All-American Jacob Pullen, made a case for himself starting at the jump-ball and finished up with a surplus of new life in his quest for major minutes.
Head coach Frank Martin isn't going to call off the dogs and the manhunt is far from over, but following the Wildcats' first game of the year, Russell had officially given his head coach a lead in the case. The Texas product played just three minutes in the Wildcats first exhibition game on Nov. 2, but somehow opened the regular season as a starter.
The reason was clear from whistle to whistle. It was apparent from the start that he didn't intend on regressing or returning to a familiar place, saddled up next to Martin as a reserve. According to him, he's seen enough of that.
"I just wanted to come out and prove I could play basketball," he said following the game.
The sophomore, whose career scoring high previously stood at seven, scored eight points in Friday's opening half and finished the contest with career-high 19 to go along with four assists Maybe more impressive than the numbers themselves, however, was the fashion in which he compiled them. A pair of shots from long-range, a look with his back to the basket and a few layups that came on dribble penetration; in his first game as a sophomore, it was all there.
"I just tried to show a lot more intensity today," Russell said. "In practice, Jake pulled me to the side and had a talk with me about being more intense this season. I just tried to follow through."
He looked faster, stronger and miles more composed than he did a year ago in limited minutes. He was aggressive, calling for the ball almost anywhere on the court. He looked to create his own shots as well as those for others, and, for the first extended period of time, his defense was there as well.
Martin's patented "growth" speech came right on cue. The only thing that was different this time around was the subject.
"Nick has found a different gear," Martin said. "He's trying harder. He's growing."
Of course Martin still had his criticisms of the guard's performance, pointing out problems with his court vision. Russell's backcourt-mate, on the other hand, spent his time flagging positives and talking potential.
"We work together well," Pullen said. "He's a capable scorer. He can sell his pump fake and get to the lane. He can get to the free-throw line, too.
"That's what good teams have, they have multiple options. They don't just have one person that has to score all of the points out of the guard position."
As if it wasn't clear before, K-State's 2010 season opener helped drive the point home one more time.
Walk-on, veteran, freshmen or All-American; it doesn't really matter either way. Frank Martin will bench you. Just ask Curtis Kelly, a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection and K-State's record holder for blocks in a season, who watched the entirety of Friday's game in street clothes.
"He has to figure out if he wants to be a good teammate and be here," Martin said, offering an explanation of the situation. "When he does that for a significant period of time, I'll consider putting him out there again."
Still, Martin indicated that his celebrated forward was not "suspended." Instead, he preferred to think of the situation as an emphatic benching, one that included a revoked uniform.
"Curtis is practicing every day," he said. "You saw him on the bench. I'm just not in the mood to play him with the way he's practicing."
Without Kelly, the Wildcats struggled in the paint, especially on the defensive end, where they allowed James Madison score 30 of its 61 total points from the paint. The number was enough to make Martin, a coach who doesn't normally concern himself with statistics, to let some harsh words fly.
"Our self-proclaimed best frontcourt in the country isn't any good right now," he said.
Freshman Nino Williams was also not available during the season-opening victory because of a concussion he suffered early in the week.
PETERSON CLEARS FINAL HURDLE
Though he didn't play a single minute on Friday, much-traveled junior Devon Peterson was available for action against the Dukes. So, while his warm-up jacket never came off as he held down a spot next to Kelly on the Wildcats' bench, it could have.
And that was news.
After a nearly two-year odyssey that included stints at a pair of community colleges, the New York product watched K-State's first two exhibition games from the sideline while the school's compliance office took a closer look at his final junior college records. It was a process that came to end just Tuesday evening.
'It was some kind of class thing with his last class, but he's good to go now," K-State assistant coach Dalonte Hill said prior to the Wildcats' win over James Madison.
After missing a pair of exhibition games with what he and head coach Martin called an "injured eye," junior Jamar Samuels was made available for action for the first time this season. And against JMU, the rust was obvious, especially early on. He didn't check into the game until the 10:49 mark of half No. 1 and saw the first shot he attempted result in an air-ball.
In the 11 minutes of court time he saw, Samuels recoded just three points on 1-for-5 shooting and grabbed a pair of rebounds.