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Much on the line in tonight’s Sunflower Showdown

By Joel Jellison

Tonight’s game can be billed in a lot of ways.

It’s Kansas vs. Kansas State.

Bill Self vs. Bruce Weber.

Ben McLemore against Rodney McGruder.

It’s all for first place in the Big 12 , and it’s only January.

It will be the 16th time KU and K-State have matched up when both are ranked, with the Jayhawks checking in at No. 3 this week, and the Wildcats moving up to No. 11. Kansas has won 11 of those matchups, including five of the last eight. This is the best-combined record — KU 16-1 and K-State 15-2 — that the teams have had before a meeting since 2010.

K-State coach Bruce Weber said they are focused on what winning a game like this could mean going forward.

“We’re excited,” he said. “Our big goal was to get 4-0 (in Big 12) so the game would even mean more. You’ve got the rivalry obviously, the thing we’re trying to emphasize with our guys is that this is about first place.”

The rivalry between Self and Weber might be a better storyline. When Weber took over for Self at Illinois in 2004, he held a mock funeral for the former-Illini coach, looking to grasp the fans attention early.

Weber himself said on Monday during the Big 12 coaches teleconference that he can see some similarities in his situation at Illinois to the one at K-State. He even said his experience with replacing a beloved coach was one of the reasons K-State athletic director John Currie wanted him for the job.

“When I took over for Bill, he was very well liked,” he said. “The players liked him, the fans liked him, he had done well, I think you had somewhat of a similar situation here. They had really good success in (Frank Martin’s) tenure and he was really well liked by the fans and you have to fight through both of those situations to win people over.”

Self said he thinks Weber and his staff have been a positive at K-State, taking what Frank Martin’s teams did so well and blending them with Weber’s offensive system to actually improve the team.

While so many have said the team doesn’t seem much different from the Martin days, Self said he sees differences.

“I think they’re different,” he said. “I think it’s a combination. I think they’re playing with the same type of intensity that Frank demanded and I also think that they’re really understanding Bruce’s motion and becoming very hard to guard.

“I think it’s kind of been good, and this isn’t knocking anybody or knocking Frank at all, but I really believe that sometimes you know what you know and you bring somebody else in and you teach them more than what you knew and sometimes that can be a bonus, and I think that’s been the case in this situation.”

Self said the Wildcats run motion as well as anyone in college basketball right now, led by McGruder, who earned his fourth Big 12 Player of the Week award of the season on Monday.

Only two players have won that award more times in a season, as Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin won it six times in 2009 and Texas Tech’s Andre Emmett claimed it five times in 2004.

Across from McGruder in the Big 12 awards this week was the guy who just might be opposite from him on every possession in Kansas’ star freshman McLemore, who won Big 12 Rookie of the Week.

McLemore and McGruder are their squads’ leading scorers with McGruder scoring more than 20 points per game in Big 12 play and McLemore averaging 16 points on the season.

Self said he doesn’t know if they will be matched up against each other tonight, but he outlined the similarities and differences between the two.

“I would say that Rodney is a far more mature player as far as understanding how to move without the ball,” he said. “The offense that they’re running now has really benefitted him, at least from the outside looking in.

“That’s where I think the biggest difference is. Of course, Ben is an athlete that doesn’t come around every year.”

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