If Jacob Pullen plays as well as he did Thursday night when he was still feeling the effects of the flu, then the Wildcats might be in good shape against No. 4 seeded Wisconsin on Saturday in the Southeast regional. The Wildcats needed every big possession, bucket and free throw from Pullen to hold off pesky Utah State on Thursday in the final game of the evening.
One reason why the Wildcats were a trendy pick to go down early in the tournament is because of their poor free-throw shooting this season, hitting only 64.4 percent of their shots coming into Thursday's game. But they hit on 24 of 28 attempts (85.7 percent) in the contest, compensating for some late mistakes that let the Aggies get back into the contest. Nine of 10 free-throw attempts in the final 1:08 clinched the game.
That kind of sloppy play away from the charity stripe won't hold up against the Badgers in the next round. Although Wisconsin is offensively deficient at times, it is a mentally tough and disciplined club that rarely beats itself.
But if the Wildcats' first-half defense against Utah State was any indication, they have a great chance to harass Wisconsin. Their length and athleticism made shot attempts difficult and really made the Aggies work on every possession. Their patient style is similar to what the Badgers like to do: break teams down and outwork them for points.
Pullen likely will have some more magic in reserve, as he has for much of his career. But K-State also must maintain that first-half defensive intensity and be as effective at scoring without the clock moving. It will be that kind of game again.
Kansas State was able to take the early lead and answer every challenge that pesky Utah State made, holding off the Aggies in a 73-68 second-round victory in the Southeast region. Pullen's 22 points and some fine free-throw shooting (24-of-28) allowed the Wildcats to hang on. They made 9 of 10 from the line in the final 1:08 to seal the victory and go on to face Wisconsin in the next round.
The Wildcats averaged 15 turnovers per game this season but had only nine in the win over Utah State in their tournament opener.
Jacob Pullen has scored 20 or more points in six of the last eight games and 13 of 19 contests.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Providing help for Pullen is essential on both ends for Kansas State to make any kind of push in the NCAA Tournament. Pullen issued what was basically a demand to his teammates when he declared he would not play in the NIT. He then put the Wildcats on his back down the stretch as their top scorer and top defender. The team is at its best, however, when everyone buys in defensively and bigs control the boards. F Curtis Kelly, F Jamar Samuels and G Rodney McGruder are all capable of crashing the glass, though carelessness leads to silly turnovers at times, as well as too many missed shots underneath. McGruder and G Will Spradling are 3-point threats when left to spot up.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have played well in the Big 12 season, but at the same time, losing your first game (in the conference tournament) is never helpful. Where ever we're seeded, we've just got to take advantage and prepare." -Pullen.
KEY MATCHUPS: Wisconsin F Jon Leuer vs. Kansas State forwards. Leuer has hit for double figures in every game this season, averaging nearly 19 points. He does most of his work from the perimeter, though, which means the Wildcats might choose to put a smaller player -- perhaps Rodney McGruder -- on him. Leuer is a creative and resourceful scorer, though not as effective banging in the post.
Pullen vs. Wisconsin G Jordan Taylor: The Badgers are more likely to put Taylor on Pullen then ask freshman Josh Gasser to guard him for too long. Taylor is crafty and smart, but Pullen will keep his hands full. Pullen can take quick guards off the dribble, work off screens and kill opponents from deep. He also knocked out Utah State in the opening game and has the chops to get the Wildcats on a roll.
Wisconsin's three-point shooting vs. Kansas State's perimeter defense: The Badgers made 12 of 22 threes in the opening game against Belmont, led by Taylor's 5-for-9 from deep. Although they are prone to slow stretches offensively, they can hit from deep, hitting more than 37 percent during the regular season. Six players made more than 16 during the season. The Wildcats allowed 34.8 percent on three-point attempts this season, ninth in the Big 12, but sharpened up slightly in the opening tournament game, allowing only 6 of 18 three-point attempts.
Pullen averaged 25.5 points during the six-game win streak Kansas State enjoyed to close the regular season. He netted 18 in the quarterfinal loss to Colorado at the Big 12 Tournament, but made just 6 of 19 shots. He needs 44 points to break the Kansas State all-time scoring record held by Mike Evans (2,115).
F Curtis Kelly posted his second double-double of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds against Colorado. He added three assists and two steals while logging 35 minutes in one of his most complete performances of the season.