Monday, June 1, 2009 | 1:50 a.m.
When Bob Huggins left Kansas State two years ago and assistant Frank Martin was named the Wildcats’ coach, one of the first congratulatory calls Martin received was from UNLV boss Lon Kruger.
Sunday night in the Hardwood Suite at the Palms, Martin recalled the conversation as if it had taken place earlier that day.
“Knowing it’s his alma mater and a school dear to him, it meant a lot to me that someone like him would go out of his way to reach out to me to wish me well,” Martin said.
Knowing how Kruger feels about Kansas State, Martin continued talking with the former Wildcats guard about playing a series of games with UNLV.
That came to fruition about a year ago, for the 2009-10 season, but both stayed mum about it. It was recently revealed when next season’s schedule was released.
Kansas State will play the Rebels at the Orleans Arena on Dec. 12, when the National Finals Rodeo moves into the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV plays the return game against the Wildcats, during the 2010-11 season, at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
UNLV assistant Steve Henson played for Kruger at Kansas State. Greg Grensing and Mike Shepherd were on Kruger’s staff there, too. Even Lew Hill, Kruger’s other assistant, played junior college ball in Kansas.
Those strong ties, Martin said, were part of what drove him to arrange the series against the Rebels. It was a natural, he said, to give them the chance to return to the Kansas area and play before family and friends.
“At the same time, at Kansas State we’re always looking to play teams that will play a certain way, and be as competitive as possible, to prepare us for the Big 12 Conference,” Martin said. “Whenever you play a Lon Kruger team, that’s what you get. I think it’s a win-win situation.”
Martin, in Las Vegas for Kruger’s Coaches vs. Cancer Golf Classic today and Tuesday, won 43 games in his first two seasons in Manhattan, Kan., known as “the Little Apple.”
Those were the most in a two-season stretch by a Wildcats coach since Kruger’s squads won 45 in 1986-87 and 1987-88.
“It just evolved,” Kruger said. “They had an opportunity and a need for a time slot, the same way we had. It meshed together and worked out for both of us.
“They’ll be a very good team, probably third or fourth in the Big 12 preseason polls. They played well enough to be an NCAA tournament team last season but didn’t get the opportunity, and they could be projected for the NCAAs next season.”
Kruger, coaching at Florida, met Martin, who was at North Miami Senior High, in the early 1990s. Martin had helped run Gators basketball camps in the offseason and continued doing so for Kruger.
That’s when Kruger made a big impression on Martin.
“By the end of those camps, he knew the names of every kid and every coach,” Martin said. “That, to me, was just amazing.”
Typically, the directors of basketball operations for collegiate programs will coordinate schedules and hammer out their details. That’s where this Kansas State-UNLV series is unique.
Apparently, Kruger and Martin did most of the preliminary work, then their respective operations directors, Shepherd and Andy Assaley, were filled in.
“One day coach Martin came to me and said, ‘Hey, this is something we’re doing,’ ” Assaley said. “I’ll typically chase down games. In this instance, coach brought it to me.”
Kruger’s rich link to Kansas State persuaded Martin to get the Rebels on his schedule.
“He understands how tough the league is from his days in the Big Eight Conference,” Martin said. “He prepares his teams as if he were playing in that league, or those kinds of leagues.
“With that said, it’s a great deal for us and a great deal for him and the rest of his staff to be able to play so close to home.”
Martin also knows Quintrell Thomas, the 6-foot-7, 245-pound power forward who left Kansas recently and will transfer to UNLV, from recruiting Thomas.
“I saw him a lot in high school,” Martin said. “He’s big and strong, and he just pursues that basketball. I think he’s going to make a heck of a player. He got caught up in a numbers game at Kansas, unfortunately for him.
“But he just chases that ball. He presents a lot of problems for people.”
Martin’s and Kruger’s wives have never met, but that figures to happen in December. And it could become a regular meeting, since Martin and Kruger might extend the series for games in their own arenas.
“I would hope so,” Martin said. “Lon and I will definitely visit about that. Like I said, I love to play his teams. They’ll prepare us. Win or lose, we’ll be a better team after that game.
“If he’s interested in coming back to the Kansas area every other year, I’d be all for it.”