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October 13, 2011

Martin, Cats ready to open practice

Pitbull, Alex Rodriguez, Gloria Estefan … add St. Louis Cardinals outfielder John Jay to the list of Florida-born celebrities to whom Frank Martin has ties.

A chunk of Kansas State head basketball coach's final offseason hours were spent watching Jay, a childhood friend's son, play centerfield at Busch Stadium in the National League Championship Series, but as he sat in the stands taking in the home team's victory with his own offspring, a bit of business crept its way into his otherwise relaxed mind. Considering the timing, it was to be expected.

Just hours later, it was back to work.

With preseason practice set to get under way Friday evening, Martin used Thursday morning to address the media about his team. All the usual platitudes were present. He expressed concern about the inexperience that comes with having six newcomers (three freshmen and three transfers) and touched on the growth of individual players. His most familiar verbal stroke, though, was made when he was asked to speak on expectations for this group of Wildcats -- a group not expected by outsiders to compete for a trophy of any kind.

The national fanfare Martin sometimes raged against a season ago has vanished. And suddenly, the fifth-year head coach wants it back.

Funny how these things work, isn't it?

"I like expectations," Martin said. "Here's the deal: the people on the outside's opinions change with the wind. My opinion never changes. The expectations we place on ourselves as coaches and on the players, that doesn't change."

And so this season, things are, at least in one way, the same. K-State won't be picked to win the league or to make a deep postseason run, not in 2011. Martin's aware of the drop in public perception. It's not as though he lives in Manhattan-based bubble. It's just that he doesn't care.

"Our expectations going into this year are to go out and win the Big 12, like they were last year, and the year before and the year before that," he said.

Doing so the year after the loss of the program's all-time leading scorer, Jacob Pullen, will be tricky. The fact that Curtis Kelly, the Wildcats' most effective post player from a year ago, is also gone will add yet another hurdle. But with a new team comes a new strategy.

On Thursday, Martin said he plans to keep some of the pinch-post offense the squad ran last season, but expects to mix it with the old, up-tempo K-State attack that showed itself to be successful during the team's run to the Elite Eight in 2010. Just how much of each he decides to use will change throughout the year, as a new team filled with new contributors -- contributors Martin calls longer and more athletic -- searches for an identity.

"Both (offenses) have been successful for us," Martin said. "We have to figure out which one this team plays better in. That's our duty as coaches to figure it out and make those kinds of decisions."

It's not as if the Wildcat coaches are starting anew. There are the veterans here as well, and Martin is quick to point it out. On Thursday, he complimented the growth of junior Rodney McGruder and sophomore Will Spradling, a pair of players he expects to lead this squad. He pointed out Jordan Henriquez-Robert's ability to score in the post. And as for senior Jamar Samuels, with whom Wildcat coaches have been publicly displeased with in the recent past? Suddenly, any ill will there has vanished.

According to Martin, Samuels is up to almost inconceivable 233 pounds after starting last season at 201. Equally surprising, though, is the praise radiating from the same coach who seemed frustrated with his fifth-year forward's performance not so long ago.

"He doesn't look like a lizard anymore," Martin said of Samuels' new physique. "He actually looks like a Division-I athlete now … you can tell right away that he's a stronger player. He's not going to get knocked around as much.

"He's made a commitment to making himself better. Now he has to be consistent with that."

When asked to analyze his newcomers or the larger picture of this year's group, though, Martin declined to go into detail. Turns out, it's hard to construct a puzzle when you can't see the pieces.

"The rules are so strict about us not being able to be around the guys all summer, you really don't know what you have until you start spending time them," he said.

The time-spending will begin when he takes the floor with his players for a closed practice from 5-7 p.m. Friday. The uncertainty, at least in his mind, will to begin melt away from there. And with less than a month remaining before K-State tips off its season inside Bramlage Coliseum, everyone else will be let in on his findings soon enough.





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