Kansas State coach Frank Martin wasn't happy with his team's performance at Oregon, and he hid it about as well as 6-foot-10 Luis Colon could hope to disguise himself in an igloo. But despite his verbal and visual displeasure over the Wildcats' most recent loss, Martin says these stumbling points are all a part of the process. Grooming a team that features seven freshmen or sophomores into consistent winners hasn't been an easy task, but then again, nobody expected it to be.
"We're what, four possessions away from being 8-0? If those four possessions go a different way, we're sitting here and your asking me what's made the big difference in our team and why we are so good," Martin said. "We don't have issues. We're going through growth. When guys make certain decisions on the basketball court, they learn."
As Martin's players learn on the court, however, the K-State fan base continues to learn about Martin, and so far one thing has been abundantly clear:
The second-year head coach hates to lose.
With a 5-3 record, Martin and K-State are just a pair of losses away from falling to the dreaded .500 mark in non-conference play, and whether the Wildcats, who have now dropped three straight, are young or seasoned, a loss to 4-3 Southern Miss in Kansas City on Thursday could be downright crippling.
"These last couple of games, we've only lost by a couple of points," sophomore forward Ron Anderson said. "We should've won those games. We'll be fine though. This happened last year. We were 5-3 and we still made the tournament. We should be all right."
If fixing the Wildcats' early-season problems is, in fact, all about growth, said growth will need to start in the backcourt, where guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente have combined to shoot 35.2 percent from the floor, including 27.7 percent from 3-point range in the team's last three outings.
"We go game to game and look for our ability to grow," Martin said. "I was pleased with the direction we were going, but against Oregon, I wasn't happy. I feel like we took a step backwards, but that's OK. That happens to everybody around country. You just have those days where you just don't play well."
"We just need to grind down and start playing hard like we were earlier in the season," senior forward Darren Kent said.
Usually, a slump such as the one the Wildcats currently find themselves in would be something addressed by a group of veterans. In this case, however, it may have to be a one-man job.
"As a senior, the last couple of games, I've had some mental mistakes, some careless turnovers and not knocking down shots that I've needed to for our squad," said Kent, the team's lone senior. "I'm taking it upon my shoulders to get this group of guys going and to get back to our winning ways."
In order do so, however, Kent and his K-State teammates will have to find away through former Iowa State head coach Larry Eustachy's Southern Miss team, which is having troubles of its own as of late, dropping back-to-back games against to New Mexico and South Alabama.
Right now, the Golden Eagles don't look anything like a formidable challenge. But don't try telling Martin, who despite his reputation as a straight shooter, is picking up on the art of coachspeak rather well.
"They're a typical Larry Eustachy-coached team," Martin said. "They go rebound that basketball. They have a couple guards, who can really, really score the basketball. One of them is pretty darn good. (Jeremy Wise, who is averaging more than 20 points per game) is on NBA draft boards. I can tell you that. They're just a really well coached team. They're not going to turn it over, they're not going to give you easy baskets and they're going to be as physical as any team we've played this year."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Martin wasn't kidding when he said the Golden Eagles were physical. Despite possessing a guard-heavy roster, Southern Miss likes to bang it out down low on both ends of the court, and while that will present some unique challenges for a group of unproven K-State big men, the Wildcats' up-tempo offensive style will give the Eagles headaches of their own.
The tempo at which this game is played will have a large impact on the final score, and for K-State, faster will equal better. The Wildcats will have their work cut out for them on the glass, but if they can find a way to score in the mid to high 70s, they should have no problem collecting their sixth win of the season against a Golden Eagle's team that is struggling offensively.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE WILDCATS: Clemente scored a team-high 19 against Oregon on Sunday, but his 8-for-20 shooting performance doesn't exactly qualify him as "hot". In fact, it has been freshman forward Jamar Samuels who has been K-State's most efficient player as of late. Samuels has scored in double-figures in each of K-State's last two games while shooting a combined 50 percent from the floor.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE GOLDEN EAGLES: After playing just 19 minutes and going 0 for 5 from the floor in Southern Miss' loss to South Alabama, Golden Eagle guard R.L. Horton bounced back against New Mexico, shooting 50 percent on his way to scoring a game-high 27 points.