Jacob Pullen is the bearded and scowling face of Kansas State basketball, the undersized player taking on bigger guys with bigger muscles and knocking them back because this is how he plays.
Every game, it seems, he has a different injury to play through. Last time it was a wrist hurt diving for a loose ball. The game before that, his elbows and butt broke a full-force fall to the hardwood. He scored 49 points in those games, both wins.
The deeper the Wildcats play into the NCAA Tournament, the more people around the country see Pullen’s boot-camp style, so before this goes too far, Pullen’s brother has a secret to share.
“Don’t tell him I said this,” Joe Pullen says, “but he’s a mama’s boy.”
Joe laughs as the words come out. Jacob is spoiled, Joe says. Even calls him a sucker. This is good fun for Joe, and truth is, Jacob doesn’t mind, either. Once he puts on his jersey, the mama’s boy turns into the baddest dude on the basketball court.
Pullen is the one who scored 34 and turned BYU darling Jimmer Fredette into a nonfactor last weekend. He’s the one perhaps most responsible for how far K-State plays this weekend.
And it has much more to do with attitude than talent, just like the team he represents.
Actually, more and more, Jacob Pullen’s patchy beard and constant on-court frown are a pretty good representation of what college basketball is evolving into outside Manhattan, too.
Toughness is winning as often as talent.
“I try to be that,” he says. “I don’t know if I want it more, or it’s the way I grew up, but I think our team is one of the toughest teams out there.”
Maybe you could see Jacob Pullen’s toughness all the way back at 5 years old, as he rode his bike around his family’s Chicago suburb. His Huffy had training wheels when his best friend rode by without. Unacceptable.
“Take ’em off,” he told his dad.
Maybe you could see it a few years later, when he started playing ball in the driveway with his older brothers. They had four and nine years on Jacob, and fouled the little guy mercilessly. Basketball became like hockey, Jacob being checked into the garage, pulling himself off the ground and coming back for more.
“He never cried,” says Jerome Pullen, Jacob’s father. “He’d come in, get a band-aid, a cup of Kool-Aid, and he’s right back out the door to play again.”
Maybe you could see Pullen’s toughness one specific afternoon in that driveway. He was 10, and just took another hard foul that put him on his back. A few plays later and Joe went up for a layup. This time, the older brother ended up on the ground, baby bro looking down with a sparkle.
“No fouls, right?” Jacob said.
Maybe you could see it as a sophomore in high school, when Pullen matched up against Marcus Green, a senior with a scholarship to Purdue. Green made a move to the hoop, got Pullen on his hip and knocked him over before hitting the shot.
Next play, Green got the ball in his hands and a mischievous look on his face. He tried the same move, but this time Pullen stood his ground, took the bump and sneaked in for the steal. Pullen raced down the court, hit the layup and looked at Green in time to see him smile.
“That was me being tough, and also me being smarter,” Pullen says. “That made him understand, ‘This kid’s for real, he can play.’ I felt like it was a big deal.”
Or maybe you saw it during Pullen’s freshman year at K-State. That was Frank Martin’s first year as head coach, and he wore Pullen out. Michael Beasley and Bill Walker were the stars, but Pullen seemed to get most of Martin’s attention during practice.
There were curse words, extra sprints, angry glares, enough that Charlotte Pullen sometimes wondered whether this was the best place for her son. But Jacob always told her, “He’s passionate, mom, just like me.” Pullen listened to what Martin said and ignored how he said it.
The surest sign that Pullen was getting it came against Kansas, when he scored 20 points as the Wildcats ended their 24-game home losing streak to the Jayhawks.
“Guys who aren’t tough and aren’t confident sometimes question themselves when you get on them,” says assistant coach Brad Underwood. “And if you’re like that, you can’t have games like that.”
This is the way of college basketball now. Talent comes and goes, usually quickly and to the NBA. Toughness sticks, and as proof, some point to K-State and West Virginia making the Sweet 16 and Kansas and Villanova falling short.
The Wildcats might be the poster team for this trend. Playing with the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, they made the 2008 tournament as a No. 11 seed. Playing with more grit than flash, they’re now a top-10 team in the Sweet 16.
“There’s no question,” says Rex Walters, the coach at San Francisco often credited with bringing a hard edge to Kansas during his playing days. “You’re now seeing very talented players, talented teams, losing because there’s teams tougher and more together. You have to have talent, but you have to have toughness.”
Pullen brings that to K-State, and in bunches. In a lot of ways he is the personification of how Martin wants his teams to play: tenacious, gutsy, consistent.
Pullen is good enough to play professionally and may end up as K-State’s all-time leading scorer. But if you ask him what he’s most proud of from the BYU game, he’ll say his defense on star Jimmer Fredette without mentioning the 34 points.
When the Big 12 postseason awards came out, he told his dad about making the all-defense team without mentioning making the all-conference team.
Ask him what he wants people to see in his game, and he uses words like “play hard,” “competitor,” and “toughness.” People inside K-State’s basketball program use a lot of the same language to describe what they want to be.
It’s a good fit for the personality of the coaches there, and a good fit for what plays in college basketball. Much of the talk about what killed Kansas’ season dances around the edges of toughness, and so does much of the talk about what is boosting Kansas State into the nation’s elite.
Talk to five coaches, and you’ll get five different answers on how they judge toughness. One might say offensive rebounding, another free-throw attempts. One might say he wants guys willing to push back, another that he looks for those willing to dive at loose balls with their nose and not just their hands.
It’s impossible not to notice that Pullen shoots the most free throws on the team that leads the nation in attempts and that he always seems to be the first on the floor after loose balls.
Pullen’s kind of toughness is more important in college basketball than ever.
“One-hundred percent,” Underwood says. “It’s our culture. We’re creatures of our culture. When we go to AAU events, the kid who plays the hardest always stands out. Fifteen years ago, everybody played hard, and the kid who didn’t play hard stuck out.
“So now you’re looking for kids who are tough, who work, who can handle coaching. That’s an important part of what we do, to have guys who want to be coached and do things they haven’t been asked before.”
Jacob Pullen takes pride in all of this. He should. Moderately recruited out of high school, his hard work and K-State’s coaching have him positioned as one of the best players in school history.
His identity fits, too. He’s more hard-hat than sun visor, more work boots than dress shoes. He’s the guy who likes to draw the midcourt charge, or jump into defenders trying to draw the foul — physical consequences be damned.
Martin has said his guard is more banged up than people realize, but maybe that’s just the admission price for being the leader of K-State’s first Sweet 16 team in 22 years.
Besides, it’s not as if he’s all grimaces and muscle flexing. He’s a mama’s boy, remember.
“Yeah, I am,” he says. “I’m the baby, you know? So mama solves everything.”
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.