MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP)—With a short turnaround off a tough road win and several players fighting nagging injuries, Frank Martin decided to try an experiment.
Instead of relentlessly pushing his team through practice a he almost always does, the Kansas State coach took it easy on them.
Martin won’t do that again. Not after the way the Wildcats had to claw their way past a winless opponent.
Jacob Pullen had 18 points, Dominique Sutton added 14 and No. 12 Kansas State responded to its highest ranking in 36 years with an uneven 90-76 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Monday night.
“I’m like everyone else,” Martin said. “I make decisions. When they work out, I understand. When they don’t, I take notes and move forward. I kind of prepare my mind for the next time we have a quick turnaround.”
It wasn’t just Martin’s trial balloon. The Wildcats had plenty of reasons for a letdown: one day off after a hard-fought win over Alabama, facing a winless opponent after a tough four-game stretch, the excitement of a high ranking, a trip home for Christmas in the morning.
Kansas State (11-1) battled through the distractions, using balanced scoring and a swarming defense to wear down Pine Bluff after four resume-building wins over bigger programs. Curtis Kelly had 13 points and eight rebounds, Denis Clemente and Jamar Samuels added 12 points each and the Wildcats shot 50 percent for their eighth consecutive win.
“Everyone probably expected us to come out and destroy them, but it was a tough game for us,” Pullen said.
Not surprisingly, Arkansas-Pine Bluff (0-10) didn’t make it easy on Kansas State.
The Golden Lions had gone through a gauntlet of tough games before arriving in Manhattan and weren’t in awe of the atmosphere of playing in a Big 12 arena against a ranked opponent.
UAPB scrapped to keep it close early, made a gritty run late to cut a 24-point lead in half and never let up, even as the win climbed out of reach. Tyree Glass had 18 points and Savalance Townsend added 16 for the Golden Lions, who lost another road game despite shooting 52 percent.
“It’s hard to get down to a team like K-State and try to dig yourself out of that hole,” UAPB coach George Ivory said. “I’m just proud of the guys. They never quit and they competed all the way to the end.”
This game was never supposed to be close.
Off to its best start in five years, Kansas State moved into the Top 25 last week and jumped five spots to No. 12 on Monday, its highest ranking since 1973 and highest pre-conference since 1965. The Wildcats have the nation’s best RPI rating, second-best strength of schedule and have beaten two ranked nonconference teams in the same season for the first time since 1958-59.
Oh, they also entered Monday’s game with 20 consecutive nonconference wins at home.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff hasn’t won a game, hasn’t played at home and is in the midst of a brutal stretch of eight straight games against schools from BCS conferences that thankfully ends next week at Oregon.
Complete mismatch, right?
Well, not completely.
UAPB has kept most of its games close, even against the big-conference schools, losing by an average of 14.2 points. The Golden Lions stayed with Kansas State early by sneaking in for offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive.
What hurt UAPB was turnovers—again.
The Golden Lions had 15 that led to 19 points for Kansas State in the first half and 21 overall after turning it over 20 times in a loss to Missouri on Saturday.
The miscues set up easy opportunities at the other end for Kansas State, particularly Pullen.
Coming off a 30-point game against Alabama, the junior guard scored Kansas State’s first eight points and keyed two game-changing runs.
Pullen whipped a nifty bounce pass through traffic to set up Sutton for a two-handed slam to cap an early 12-2 run that put the Wildcats up 27-14. He hit a 3-pointer to start another run, this one a 15-0 halftime-spanning streak that included Clemente’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer from about 30 feet and was capped by Sutton’s steal, dunk and three-point play that put the Wildcats up 53-29.
UAPB scored 24 of the next 36 points to cut Kansas State’s lead to 65-53, but the Wildcats followed with a 10-0 run to pull away. Another loss for the Golden Lions, but also another good lesson for when the Southwestern Athletic Conference season starts next month.
“It was good that we got to play against a team like this,” Ivory said. “It’s exciting for our guys to play against a team like that, especially in a basketball atmosphere like the crowd was tonight.”