Kansas State travels to Kansas Wednesday night, marking the beginning of an 18-game grueling conference stretch. Whoever makes it through this gauntlet of a schedule as the Big 12’s top dog will leave no doubt it is the true champion of the 10-team league.
The Wildcats and the Jayhawks are two of the frontrunners for the Big 12 crown, which means the conference opener, which tips off at 7 p.m. tomorrow in Allen Fieldhouse, will have plenty at stake for both teams.
“I am just ready to play that game,” K-State’s Rodney McGruder said. “I am excited and amped up for it. I cannot wait until Wednesday.”
It’s been said before and will be repeated again and again until another program in the conference changes this: When it comes to winning the Big 12 championship in men’s basketball, all the talk starts and ends with the Jayhawks. KU has won seven straight league titles and 11 of the 15 regular-season crowns during the existence of the Big 12.
But if there was a year for the picking, this may be it. KU is 10-3, which includes a loss to a 7-4 Davidson team in front of a partisan KU crowd at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
“Don’t pay attention to their record because I don’t think anyone in the country would have an undefeated record if they’d played the schedule Kansas has played,” K-State coach Frank Martin said.
That schedule included the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Ohio State and Georgetown.And make no mistake, the Jayhawks are still talented. But this KU team may not have the same firepower that has been prevalent on KU teams in recent years, though Martin disagreed for the most part with that notion.
“I don’t see much difference,” he said.
Thomas Robinson is playing like an All-American — perhaps even the National Player of the Year, averaging more than 17 points and 12 rebounds per game this season — a number that ranks second nationally. And guards Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson are a pretty good one-two punch out on the perimeter, averaging 15.3 and 10.2 points respectively.
So there’s still star-power on the court.
But the three primary players KU uses off its bench have combined to average14.8 points per game. Conner Teahan has been a solid sixth man, averaging 8.3 points per game. But outside of the fifth-year senior, the Jayhawks’ primary two contributers are Kevin Young and Justin Wesley, who have combined for 6.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this season.
“Their number seven, eight, nine player maybe isn’t as good as their seven, eight, nine of a couple years ago,” Martin said. “But those guys coming in off the bench — where they’re at now to where they were at the beginning of the year — it’s day and night.
“Conner Teahan is a fifth-year senior who fully embraces their culture, their traditions, their winning attitude along with a starting lineup that’s old in years. Yeah, they weren’t as experienced early in the year kind of like our guys as far as major-minute guys, whether it be (Jeff) Withey, Elijah Johnson or Travis Releford. However, those are guys who have been in their program for a lot of years, so they respect the culture, they expect to win and I think you’ll see that from their team as the year continues.”
KU head coach Bill Self said there are obvious differences between this year’s KU team to his previous ones.
“Our team is so different than what it has been in the past,” he said. “You go back and watch last year’s tapes of upcoming opponents to see if you can see tendencies, or how you guarded this or how they guarded that. I’ve done that, and our teams are so much different than what they were last year. Different doesn’t mean bad. It’s just different. I think there are some things that we have to do a better job of than last year’s team in order to have great success in the league because we can’t just rely on the (Morris twins) or depth to bail us out.”
What the Jayhawks lack in depth, the Wildcats have. K-State goes 10-deep, and in four of their last five games, their bench has scored at least 34 points.
“They (K-State) bring a lot of challenges,” Self said, “but if I was gonna give them the biggest compliment I would say they just play so hard and that’s a compliment to the staff. And when I say so hard I’m talking on the offensive glass, stealing extra possessions, in a (defensive) stance, denying one pass away, making it hard for you to get comfortable. They do a great job of that. We’re gonna have to really, really attack them getting after us and not allow them to take advantage of us being passive, so to speak, against all their pressure.”
Now retread back to the beginning of this story. The Wildcats haven’t won a regular-season conference championship on the hardwood since 1977. With the 18-game double-round robin schedule beginning now, it could be as tough as ever. But K-State would like to bring some more hardware back home into its trophy case, and a big step in doing that would be defeating KU on its home court on Wednesday.
“I’ve felt the last four (K-State) teams have been ready for (a conference championship run),” Martin said. “We’ve fallen short. We gave ourselves a chance a couple years ago (finished second). Our first year we’re in first place after 10 conference games (finished third). We’ve been close. We haven’t gotten it done.
“We’re gonna give it a run again this year. If it’s in the cards, we’ll do our part to try and take advantage of whatever opportunities are ahead of us to take. If it’s not then we’ll keep our heads up high and know we gave it a run as hard as we could.”