We didn’t think it could happen again --  another Sunflower State school falling victim to some mid-major magic.
It was all set up for Kansas State, there for the taking. An unexpected string of events was parting the sea for the Wildcats to make the Final Four, even the national championship game.
We thought Butler had been one of the nice, little stories of the NCAA Tournament, but the time had come for it to go the way of so many other Cinderellas. The clock, we figured, would strike midnight Saturday in Salt Lake, and the Wildcats would move on.
But Butler wouldn’t go away. The Bulldogs are now THE story of the Final Four, though you might get an argument from the West Virginia faithful.
What we hadn’t counted on was just how much the Wildcats’ double-overtime dilly of a victory Thursday over Xavier took out of them, both physically and mentally. KSU’s players would not use that as an excuse, but this clearly wasn’t the same team Saturday that had fought and scrapped its way through such a memorable season.
As we were watching early on, it was evident to us that the gas needle was on empty. The first signs were when Jacob Pullen, Denis Clemente and Curtis Kelly were all bending over early in the game, hands on their knees. They’re normally fresh as daises, 24-7.
The Wildcats found themselves down seven at halftime, but we never wavered in our belief that they would come back. They did mount a charge to take a brief lead, but Butler closed the game strong and completed its improbable run through the West Regional.
Throughout the tournament, we showered praise on what we believed to be the best backcourt in the country, Pullen and Clemente. But had Clemente not scored just before the half, the Dynamic Duo would have been held scoreless.
Neither player appeared to be himself. Clemente didn’t display the blinding speed that would leave Kentucky’s John Wall behind. Pullen seemingly couldn’t shake free.
They did get it going somewhat in the second half, combining for 30 points, but they were just 11 of 30 from the field. Clemente even missed 3 of 4 free throws.
Kelly did his best to keep KSU afloat in the first half, but as everyone noticed -- especially announcers Gus Johnson and Len Elmore, who repeatedly pointed it out -- he didn’t get many touches in the second half.
Pullen, Clemente and Kelly combined for 46 of the Wildcats’ 56 points. Dominique Sutton and Jamar Samuels combined for exactly 0 and combined to miss all nine of their attempts. Wally Judge and Rodney McGruder, both freshmen, provided the only bench scoring.
Kansas State didn’t help its cause by making just 7 of 14 free throws, but the most telling stat was that the less-athletic Bulldogs pounded the boards for a 41-29 rebounding advantage, something we would never have imagined before the game.
The loss ended an unexpected glorious season for Kansas State. The Wildcats, given the jump-start by Bob Huggins’ one-year infusion of life into the program and continued the last three years by Martin, are now a major player and a potential Top 10 program for years to come. The days of Tom Asbury and Jim Wooldridge now seem so distant and basketball is now the talk of Manhattan, at least until Bill Snyder completes Miracle in Manhattan II, which could happen this year or next.
The Wildcats could be even better next year. They’ll certainly miss Clemente, who was a proud warrior. Luis Colon and Chris Merriweather made nice contributions and they’re great guys, but there’s far more talented players who can supplant them.
If Kansas loses Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry as expected, the Wildcats could enter the 2010-11 season as the Big 12 favorite and a top-five preseason team. Pullen will have few peers in the backcourt, and Martin can go a number of different ways alongside him. Martavious Irving is a talent and only needs more minutes to be effective. McGruder, in our opinion, should have played more, as he always seem to bring a lot to the table.
The frontcourt should be among the best in the country with Kelly, Samuels, Sutton and Wally Judge, who will be the team’s breakout player. And the guy to watch may be 7-0 freshman Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, who hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of his potential. An offseason in the Wildcat system and he could be a force.
Martin already has secured a top-notch recruiting class, though it’s hard to imagine with so much talent back that any can make a major impact. Judge was a McDonald’s All-American and while many thought he was going to be a poor man’s Michael Beasley, it just goes to show that it’s a big jump from high school to Division I.
The biggest winners in all of this, though, are the basketball fans of the state of Kansas. Even though K-State didn’t solve the KU puzzle this year, as long as Martin and Bill Self stay around this should be one of the nation’s best rivalries for years to come.