Young and the Restless: Raw Wildcats Back on the Map

OMAHA, Neb. -- If you ranked the coaches 1-8 at this Midwest Region first-round site, Frank Martin might finish in the bottom two. That, of course, is a compliment, considering that last year at this time Frank Martin wasn't in the top 328.

That's the number of Division I teams, none of which had thought of hiring Martin until Kansas State was desperate last April. Desperate to hold together a recruiting class, desperate to keep the momentum that Bob Huggins had started, the school gave Martin a battlefield promotion.

On Thursday night, though, this bug-eyed 41-year-old just made himself a lot of money, if not a career.

"Oh, he'll get a raise," promised K-State fan boy/president Jon Wefald.

K-State's 80-67 victory over Southern California is the kind of result that gets a coach more than a raise. It gets you the good tables at fine restaurants. It gets fawning assistants from Backwater State asking for a job at the coaches convention. It might even set you up for life if you play it right.

Even if it all crashes and burns next season, Martin can cash this campaign into a paycheck somewhere.

This was Kansas State's first tournament in 12 years, first tournament win in 20 years. In the celebrated, prime-time battle of freshman, a rookie coach stole the show.

"I just listen to coach," said Michael Beasley, who contributed his 27th double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds. "He's a very smart guy."

Available? Yes. Capable? Sure. Smart? That's about the first time anyone has used that word about Martin. For 16 years Martin was a sometimes controversial high school coach. In 1998, his Miami (Fla.) High School was ruled to have violated the state association's recruiting policy. At least five players, the association said, received extra benefits. Martin was never implicated in the wrongdoing but was fired from his job.

Wefald signed off on him in April, promoting an unproven college coach, putting him in charge of a fragile program, mostly just to keep two freshmen superstars –- Beasley and Bill Walker -- from leaving.

Talk about the blue chips running the asylum. If it worked, great. If it didn't, Wefald might have set his program back a decade. Now?

"We're doing things people in Hollywood do," Wefald gushed.

Fitting because the people from Hollywood looked like the softies. The USC Trojans seemed like they hadn't played in the tournament in 12 years. In truth, they had gone to the Sweet 16 last year. Freshman O.J. Mayo came there for a one-and-done season because, citing the success of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush in football, "the school is ready for a player of my caliber."

Instead, Mayo is headed home. He didn't score until halfway through the first half. While it's obvious Mayo is a tremendous talent, it's obvious Kansas State had the better team, something you couldn't say about the Wildcats in the last month.

"We kind of hit a slump," K-State forward Dominique Sutton said. "We didn't know how to get out of it at the time. If we're motivated like we were tonight, we're the best defensive team in the nation."

Mayo and his Trojan teammates were outhustled all night. At one point in the second half, K-State had more offensive rebounds (20) than USC had rebounds (19). What does that tell you?

"I had healthy guys," Martin said. "We lost three starters right in the middle of conference play. What am I going to do? Run a bunch of 18-year-old kids into the ground?"

Well, yes, considering that's mostly what his roster is: young. Seven freshmen and nine first-year players. Beasley came to play every night but Walker could be wildly erratic. Three-and-a-half weeks ago against Texas, Walker went oh-for-14. Against Oklahoma State on Feb. 9, Martin had to play two walk-ons because of injuries.

On Thursday, though, Martin and the Wildcats caught everyone by surprise. USC's best inside defender, Taj Gibson, fouled out. Walker came to play, getting 17 of his 22 points in the first half. Tim Floyd, maybe the best coach in this corner of the bracket, tried a box-and-one against Beasley. It seemed to have worked when Beasley got two fouls 4:15 into the game.

Instead of sitting Beasley down, Martin spotted the 6-10 forward throughout the rest of the half. In on offense, out when the Wildcats were going on defense. Martin has done it since a November loss against George Mason. K-State lost by 10.

"He's earned my trust," Martin said of Beasley. "A lot of guys, (if) you put them back in the game when they got fouls early, they won't guard, they won't rebound, they won't be aggressive. Mike's too valuable a player, he's too good. He's made me trust him. He's smart enough to play and not pick up that third foul."

Beasley did pick up the third foul 31 seconds into the second half. Two of those fouls were completely bogus. The officiating crew of J.D. Collins, Eric Curry and Robert Staffen seemed to realize the error of their ways and left Beasley alone the rest of the game. He responded with 18 points and eight rebounds in the second half.

"I think this put us on the national map," Wefald whispered to a K-State official.

Maybe he, like everyone else, is forgetting the four Final Fours and 11 Elite Eights in K-State history. It's been a while, though, and all anyone cared about Thursday was beating USC.

Including the coach who notched his first career NCAA tournament victory.

"Yeah, he had the fire in his eyes before practice," Beasley said, "while we were eating breakfast, on the way to the gym. And to see him so enthusiastic and with all this intensity, it makes us step up our game a little more."

Higher than K-State's game has been in 20 years.


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