PULLMAN, Wash. — Kansas State basketball coach Frank Martin has kept his assessments of the Wildcats brief this season.
After every game, he inevitably labels them "talented" and "immature."
In one breath, he smiles and compliments their abilities to make highlight-reel plays. With the next, he calls them "the most immature team I've ever coached," and criticizes Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly for providing poor senior leadership.
His comments may sound extreme at times, given that K-State is 6-1 and ranked fifth. But Martin insists he is voicing valid concerns for a youthful roster that continually needs to be pushed.
"Immature doesn't mean we've got guys playing marbles," Martin said. "Immature means that we've got guys that are still young. They don't understand how to focus in at the task at hand, or how to keep distractions away from whatever it is we're trying to get done. Mentally we're not as disciplined as we need to be."
That should make K-State's 10:05 tip tonight at Washington State an intriguing game. It is the Wildcats' first true road test and it will come with new distractions. Most K-State players say they have never been anywhere close to Pullman, Wash., and it took a long charter flight to get there Thursday.
A late start means today will be filled with anxious waiting.
"Time goes extremely slow out there," junior forward Jamar Samuels said.
And when the game starts, K-State will have to take on a Cougars squad (5-0) that is striving for a marquee victory.
"With a young team," Martin said, "I'm kind of happy our first road trip is far away like that, to make us understand how important it is that we focus in at the task at hand."
For weeks, the Cats have listened to Martin challenge them, and tried to become more mature. Pullen has become more vocal in practices, and Martin says Pullen has returned to his old form since the Wildcats lost to top-ranked Duke on Nov. 23.
Kelly has gone from Martin's doghouse and the bench to a leading role.
"On a long road trip like that, you tend to get distracted by jokes on the plane and not getting rest," Kelly said. "I think me and Jake are going to settle down the young guys and make sure they rest their bodies and stay focused."
Winning will be important. A year ago, the Wildcats’ rise in the polls came in large part because of their road successes. In games played away from Bramlage Coliseum, they went 16-5.
As the year went on, players began referring to road games as "business trips" and liked proving themselves in tough venues.
"We've got to take the same exact mentality as last year," Pullen said. "Every time we stepped on a plane last year, we played better on the road than we did at home, because we felt like we were going on business trips. We need to get this team to act the same way and understand the same principles.
"When we go on the road, we're walking out of there and we're wearing our suits and we're going there to handle business. We go out there, we take care of our business, we get back on the plane and we leave that same night."