COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- After starting 0-4 in Big 12 play, point guard Denis Clemente and Kansas State haven't done much wrong in recent days. The Wildcats have won four straight, including a pair of games away from Bramlage Coliseum, and the team's confidence level, which was a concern just weeks ago, has now become its greatest asset.
For whatever the reason, this K-State squad looks nothing like the one that seemed destined to finish conference play below .500.
"I think, right now, we can go against anybody," sophomore Dominique Sutton said. "I think the way we're playing right now, we can go against anybody. The way we're playing, it's tremendous. We're on a four-game winning streak. We're going to go into Texas A&M on Saturday and just try to get a win there."
If the Wildcats come away with their second Lonestar State victory in seven days, it will toss gas on what may very well be the conference's hottest burning fire and finally give K-State the winning conference record that seemed so unlikely after their disastrous start.
The confidence that now runs rapid in practices, games, and the locker room has sparked more than just a winning streak, however. According to Coach Frank Martin, it appears as though the adversity his team trudged its way through has given birth to stable leadership, something the Cats may have been missing since the loss of Bill Walker and Clent Stewart, last year's most vocal personalities.
"I think our sprit was broken," Martin said. "You know your team is losing faith when your work habits, your practices start struggling. That never changed for us. It's just a young team learning how to deal with the Big 12, which is a bear of a conference. We needed guys to lead us. That's what Clemente (and) Darren Kent (have done)."
K-STATE AT TEXAS A&M
Tip: 3:01 p.m. CST Where: Reed Arena (12,989), College Station, Texas Head Coaches: Frank Martin 2nd yr (36-19 overall); Mark Turgeon 2nd year (42-17), 11th year overall (195-136) Radio: K-State Sports Network; Powercat Passport Internet Audio; Yahoo! Internet Radio
Wyatt Thompson, play-by-play; Stan Weber, analyst TV:Big 12 Network/ESPN Full Court
Dave Armstrong, play-by-play; Reid Gettys, color
Webcast: Powercat Passport / ESPN360.com
Clemente and Kent, K-State's two most experienced bodies, have seemingly responded their coach's challenge. Clemente's 44-point performance at Texas combined with Kent's near double-double against Iowa State, have the players around them buying in.
"We lost four games in a row," Clemente, who spent said. "It was tough. After those four losses, coach said we had to keep our heads up and get better game-by-game. That's what we're doing right now."
This year's rocky start wasn't the first bout the duo has had with tough stretches, and while neither player has been the model of game day consistency this season, Martin thinks his two most seasoned veterans' importance stretches well beyond their performance on the court.
"Your team's not going to understand the Big 12 until it goes through it," he said. "There's no way to shortcut that experience. It's not like an SAT, where you can take a class or read a book to prepare for it."
Kent and Clemente, along with the other players who suited up for Martin last season, have seen their share of rough trail, after all.
A year ago, the Wildcats dropped four straight down the stretch of the regular season, briefly putting their NCAA Tournament hopes in jeopardy.
At the time, K-State's ability to overcome such a stretch was chalked up to the abilities of Walker and national player of the year candidate Michael Beasley. But whether or not that was the case, the fact remains: most players on this roster are familiar with what it takes to work out of a jam.
"This team doesn't come back from 0-4 to where they are now unless they have a strong will," Martin said. "We've got some kids in that locker room that have a strong will. Does that mean we'll win four more in a row? I have no idea. But that's why when the chips were down I stayed with these kids."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: K-State looked tired at times in its win over Iowa State on Tuesday, but with an extra day of rest under their belt, those problems should be cured by the time they take the court in College Station, a place where K-State can not afford to be dragging behind, especially on the offensive end.
The Aggies are allowing just more than 64 points per contest this season, and the Wildcats will need to find an offensive rhythm early if they hope to set tempo and control the pace of the contest. A&M has been especially vulnerable when it comes to defending the perimeter, so if Clemente, long-range threat Fred Brown or both get going from behind the arc, the odds could very well shift in K-State's favor.
Defensively, K-State will need to concern itself with a balanced scoring attack led by Aggie forward Josh Carter and guard Donald Sloan, who are averaging a combined 23 points per contest.
Sloan, and the A&M guards have been solid when it comes to limiting turnovers, so Clemente and the K-State backcourt will need to apply relentless pressure if the Wildcats hope to find easy buckets in transition, a part of the game that has been team's lifeline at times this season.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE WILDCATS: Sutton is coming off a double-double in the K-State's Tuesday win over Iowa State and showed the athleticism that made him a recruiting commodity just two years ago. The sophomore forward finished the contest with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE AGGIES: A&M's Chinemelu Elonu posted a double-double of his own in his team's 77-71 loss to Oklahoma on Wednesday, scoring 13 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. The Aggie center is averaging nearly two blocks per game to go along with 10 points and seven rebounds.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
Here are the starting lineups for Saturday's contest between Kansas State and Texas A&M in College Station.
Kansas State (15-7, 4-4)
Texas A&M (17-6, 3-5)
G 21-Denis Clemente (6-1, 175, JR), 14.3 ppg/2.5 rpg
G 3-Derrick Roland (6-4, 185, JR), 5.4 ppg/2.7 rpg
G 0-Jacob Pullen (6-0, 200, SO), 13.6 ppg/2.3 rpg
G 15-Donald Sloan (6-3, 205, JR), 11.3 ppg/3.7 rpg
F 23-Dominique Sutton (6-5, 210, SO), 8.0 ppg/5.0 rpg
F 23-Josh Carter (6-7, 200, SR), 13.0 ppg/4.0 rpg
F 42-Darren Kent (6-11, 230, SR), 8.6 ppg/5.8 rpg
F 00-Bryan Davis (6-9, 240, JR), 10.7 ppg/6.2 rpg
C 15-Luis Colon (6-10, 265, JR), 5.5 ppg/5.2 rpg
C 41-Chunemelu Elonu (6-10, 235, JR), 10.1 ppg/7.5 rpg