SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Time is supposed to ease the pain of past embarrassments.
The way Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen sees it, though, there are some things you simply can’t forget.
Locked in Pullen’s memory is the way he felt on New Year’s Eve 2007 — the night his team got blown out by Xavier, the same team the second-seeded Wildcats face Thursday night in the West Regional semifinals.
“They laughed on the court, played around,” Pullen said. “You don’t forget things like that. So when you get the opportunity to play against a team like that, you always remember that, no matter if it’s one person from that team or 10 people from that same team.”
K-State got payback for the 26-point loss — the worst of coach Frank Martin’s short career — with a physical, grinding 15-point win this season in Manhattan.
Now, one of America’s hidden little rivalries resumes, this time with the stakes ratcheted up a few notches. Kansas State (28-7) is two wins from its first Final Four since 1964. Xavier (26-8) has never been.
“It rings a bell because they’re Xavier,” Martin said. “I know their program, firsthand. I understand the winning culture they have, the expectations they have. Then, we’ve played them. We got absolutely annihilated by them on national TV on Dec. 31.”
Martin’s familiarity with sixth-seeded Xavier comes thanks to his history as an assistant for Bob Huggins — first at Xavier’s crosstown rival, Cincinnati, then at Kansas State. When Huggins left for West Virginia, Martin took over Huggins’ program, along with his schedule.
It included two more in a three-game series against Xavier, and after the first of those — the Dec. 31, 2007, matchup — Martin might have been wondering what he got himself into.
His prized recruit and star player, Michael Beasley, forgot his shoes and didn’t make a basket until the final minute.
“Bill (Walker) lost his phone, I think. Clent (Stewart) didn’t have his shoes, either,” Pullen remembered. “It wasn’t the greatest trip we had made all season. But we still went out there and played. And we got beat.”
The Musketeers let them know about it, dissing the Wildcats by cracking jokes at the free throw line to turn a bad loss into something even worse.
Which might explain why this season’s game, still on some players’ minds nearly two years after the previous meeting, was such a physical affair. There were 57 fouls and 73 free throws, lots of hard screens and rough play in the post. K-State fans braved a heavy snowstorm to attend the game, and when the Wildcats finished up the 71-56 victory, they snaked behind the media table to celebrate with the students — the kind of celebration normally saved for March, not December.
Xavier forward Jamel McLean doesn’t think anyone should get this confused with Carolina-Duke. But he has a memory, too.
“I don’t think it’s a real rivalry,” he said. “I mean, we played the past couple years. It’s a team we have a series with. We’ve got them, they got us. We’re about to go out there again and rally up and knock each other’s heads off.”
Kansas State will be playing 22 years to the date of its last trip to the regionals, back when Lon Kruger and Mitch Richmond led the Wildcats on a run that ended one loss short of the Final Four. K-State was beaten by Danny Manning and Kansas that year in the regional final, a story line that’s been oft-repeated over the years — certainly too often in the minds of those in the Little Apple.
But for as long as they last in this tournament, the Wildcats won’t have to be the “other” team from Kansas. The Jayhawks lost last weekend, removing from the tournament a team responsible for three of Kansas State’s seven losses this year.
“To compare us to Kansas, we’re going to have to start beating them first,” Martin said. “If we’re not beating them, we’re not getting too much done.”
Xavier, meanwhile, joins Michigan State as one of the only two programs to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament three years in a row.
But, in a theme that has been echoed often this week, calling the Musketeers a plucky mid-major isn’t really appropriate anymore.
The Jesuit school, with undergraduate enrollment of 4,200, recruits big-name players (See, Jordan Crawford — yes, the one who dunked on LeBron), plays in a big-time arena (capacity 10,250) and schedules big-time opponents (Duke, Florida, Butler — another “mid-major,” which plays Syracuse in the other West Regional semifinal).
“The double-edged sword is that you’ve got to be good at it,” athletic director Mike Bobinski said earlier this week. “If you are going to put that out front, it behooves you to be successful more often than not.”
Xavier was successful twice against Kansas State — a 10-point home win in 2006-07 when Huggins was still there, followed by the 26-point blowout the next season.
Then, the 15-point K-State win. But that was back in December.
The teams are familiar with each other, and know exactly what they’re getting into.
“When you reach this point in the season, you’re not going to play a pushover,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “You’re going to play a team that’s earned it. We have a healthy respect for those guys.”