It was easy to miss, but the college basketball season started Monday, and hopefully Frank Martin has let his team know that the Akron Zips traveled to Starkville, Miss. Wednesday night and put a beating on Mississippi State while everyone in the sports world focused on what was going on in State College.
Sure, we all know the SEC sucks at basketball (do you think LSU students know they have a basketball team? And that Pete Maravich doesn't play on it?) but this game should still be instructive to a K-State team that can't afford to take anyone lightly, even the Buccaneers of Charleston Southern that come to town Friday (and could probably beat LSU).
It's not going to be an easy year for Frank, and not just because of a lack of talent the likes he hasn't faced in at least 3 seasons and possibly ever. After all, you could make the case that last year's underachieving team was his toughest job, since the expectations were sky high and the discipline appeared to be right about at the level of a rebellious middle schooler for a majority of the team.
That didn't turn out so well, as KSU struggled through a tumultuous start to the season, improbably picked itself up off the mat midseason only to be knocked down in disappointing fashion again in the Big 12 tourney and NCAAs. So it's probably a good thing that the challenges of this season are quite different.
In the words of our president, let me be clear: I'm not saying this is some sort of measuring stick year for Frank where he has to perform or we should start looking for a new coach. I think he's done more than enough to show he's capable enough of coaching at this level, and barring an epically bad season or something crazy happening, I still want him as K-State's leader for next season and beyond.
Frank's challenge this year starts with the roster of 7-8 returnees and 8-9 newcomers, depending on how you classify redshirt freshman Nino Williams. Then, of course, there's the impossible task of replacing Jacob Pullen, perhaps the best four-year starter in K-State history (I'm sure some older readers may have something to say about that).
There's also the fact that while expectations are lowered considerably from the start of last season, I don't think the majority of the fanbase is willing to agree with some experts that this isn't a tournament team. I certainly am not, and I don't think Frank would want us to expect anything less of him than a finish in the top half of the Big 12 and a trip to the Big Dance. This is what happens when you make the tourney 3 out of 4 years, and it's a very good thing.
For the second straight year, the team faces a looming leadership crisis. Will Spradling could step into the role, but he's only a sophomore. Jamar Samuels doesn't seem to want it, JO doesn't seem capable of handling it, and I don't know if Rodney McGruder is assertive enough, both on the floor and on the sideline. Hopefully this time it won't take Frank so long to realize he has to fill the gaps.
At least last season, Jake (with the obvious exception of his suspension) was always there to lead by example by obviously being the best player on the floor, even when he wasn't there mentally or the shots weren't falling. This year's Wildcats don't have anything resembling that kind of consistent producer, though I'm well aware that one could easily emerge.
Probably the best comparison to this year's team is the 2008-2009 squad, which was quickly taken over by a guy who came out of the shadow of a star (sophomore Pullen) and an unheralded transfer (Denis Clemente). It's not impossible that Samuels, McGruder or even Spradling could play the role of Pullen this season, and as a sucker for flashy NYC guards, I think Omari Lawrence could fit the description for Clemente.
Then again, that was just an NIT team because those guys weren't quite good enough yet.
More than likely, Frank is going to have to cautiously mix and match the first 10 games or so until he finds 8-11 guys who he can trust to play well enough together to compete in a ridiculously difficult Big 12. The talent just doesn't appear to be there in past years, though it's not unreasonable to hope that Lawrence, Thomas Gipson, or Angel Rodriguez could quickly change that.
In any case, Frank needs to fix whatever the problem is with Jamar and make sure everyone has their head on straight by December at the latest. This team can't afford to go through the growing pains of last year's Wildcats with a backloaded schedule that features a home game against KU and three road games against ranked teams in the final six-game stretch.
On the bright side, the challenges of dealing with the intense scrutiny from the national media and building a team around a star are gone. But it's not great news that in a game that has become dominated by stars, Frank has to find a way to put together an almost Missouri-like collection of good, but not great players, and about half of them are still unknowns at the D-1 level.