SALT LAKE CITY -- Jacob Pullen could get by on sheer talent. He admits he didn't really know the definition of hard work.
Then he ran into Denis Clemente.
It was 2007. Pullen had just stepped on campus as a Kansas State freshman while Clemente had arrived as a transfer from Miami who would be sitting out a season and then have two years of eligibility remaining.
"Denis was a gym rat,'' Pullen said. "I thought I was a gym rat in high school but Denis was a different gym rat. Open gym would start at 2 (p.m.) and Denis would still be there at 9. When you're around a competitor like him, I wanted to compete. We'd be playing one and one. If you lost, I'm not going to walk away from losing.''
Pullen didn't. And the two often battled into the night.
That extended throughout the 2007-08 season when the guard duels the two had in practice sometimes were better than what fans saw in games.
"Jacob had to guard Denis every single possession of every practice,'' said Kansas State coach Frank Martin. "Denis started making Jacob understand how hard college basketball is at that moment.''
By last season, Clemente was eligible and two started playing alongside each other more than against each other. It's been quite a ride ever since.
Pullen, a junior, and Clemente, a redshirt senior, now comprise one of the nation's top backup duos. And, with a win by the second-seeded Wildcats over No. 5 Butler in Saturday's NCAA West Regional final at EnergySolutions Arena, they'll get to show their stuff at next weekend's Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The two have been scintillating enough in the Wildcats' first three tournament games. Pullen is averaging 25.7 points to raise his seasonal average to 19.5 points, and Clemente is putting up 20.3 to raise his average to 16.5.
"They've turned it up a lot of notches,'' Kansas State forward Jamar Samuels said of Pullen, who scored 28 points in Thursday's epic 101-96 double-overtime win over Xavier, and of Clemente, who had 25.
Samuels compares Clemente to a young Damon Stoudemire and Pullen to when Andre Miller led Utah to the Final Four a dozen years ago. But Samuels said Pullen shoots better than Miller.
The two are small, with Pullen standing 6-foot and Clemente just one inch taller, but they talk big. Well, at least Pullen does.
"I think so,'' Pullen said of the Wildcats having the nation's best backcourt. "I think, as far as production-wise, I'm not sure what backcourt's numbers are better than ours ... Kobe (Bryant) and Derek Fisher (of the Lakers) don't count. As far as college, we produce.''
Clemente is much more gracious when asked if the two comprise the best backcourt.
"I never think like that,'' he said to a reporter. "If you want to say it, thank you.''
Clemente is quite humble perhaps because he comes from such modest means. While growing up in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, all Clemente could afford to play basketball was only by putting up a bicycle rim and shoot at it with a crude black-and-yellow ball.
Clemente is the second cousin of Baseball Hall of Famer and Puerto Rican legend Roberto Clemente, so naturally he played his share of baseball. But Clemente, who was a shortstop, soon realized basketball was his true love and he eventually went to Miami, where he was a high school star and attracted the attention of college scouts.
But they haven't forgotten him in Puerto Rico.
"I think the whole island was watching the game,'' Clemente said of Thursday's dramatic win.
Pullen doesn't doubt it. With Kansas State having played a tournament in Puerto Rico last November, he saw first hand his backcourt mate's popularity.
"He was the man,'' Pullen said. "He's the Michael Jordan of Puerto Rico. Everywhere we went, people knew who he was. We were walking to get something to eat and a policeman stopped him and yelled, 'Clemente.'''
But Pullen, who is from the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Ill., isn't about to concede Clemente is more popular than he is at home. Pullen said it "depends on where you go'' in the Chicago area.
Over the past three seasons, Pullen and Clemente have grown close, with Clemente saying they're "like brothers.'' Pullen invited Clemente to stay with him at his Illinois home last summer, where Clemente said he was quite well-fed. Then Pullen had Clemente return the favor with some Puerto Rican food when the two were at the O'Reilly Auto Parts Tournament in San Juan.
"He got me some good food that we ate for like three days,'' Pullen said. "And when we went to Chicago, I had him eating greasy food that he'd never seen in his life. But when he's 60 he can't call me and blame me for clogged arteries.''
Through it all, the two have developed an uncanny ability to work together. Both are feisty on defense despite being undersized, both are sports-car quick and both can fill it up. Pullen, with 108, and Clemente, with 85, have combined for 203 of the team's 248 three-pointers this season.
"I understand him,'' Clemente said. "We each know what the other is going to do. He knows what I'm going to do, and I know what he's going to do.''
If only it was that easy for opponents to know what the two are going to do. Butler coach Brad Stevens has been staying up late to watch tape to figure out that riddle.
"Those guys play much bigger than they are,'' Stevens said. "They have huge hearts. They're incredibly fast. Right now, Clemente scares you as much as any player you're going to play against, as does Pullen. Pullen might be having the best tournament in the country right now.''
It's often been said experienced guard play is a key to advancing in the tournament in this era of talented big players bolting for the NBA as soon as they are eligible. Martin, who calls his duo "the spirit of our team," doesn't doubt that.
"Why do you need to have those senior guards? said Martin, not seeming to matter Pullen is a junior although perhaps Clemente being a fifth-year senior evens out the average. "The people that make the decisions on the floor, offensively and defensively, are your guards. And, if they're too young, they get wrapped up in the emotion of the last possession. That's where upperclassmen guards help you succeed because they understand the only thing that matters is the next play.''
The Wildcats have two experienced gym rats in Pullen and Clemente. One more win and they'll be on display at a very big gym in Indianapolis.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson