Wildcats, Jayhawks battle for Big 12 lead

By The Mercury

Will Spradling grew up hearing all about the legends and histories of Kansas basketball.

At some point, he says he’d heard enough.

“I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “It really started to get on my nerves.”

Spradling says he knows just how important Tuesday’s game between KU and Kansas State is to the state of Kansas. And this time, it’s got a little extra flair to it.

It will be the first time the two teams have met at 4-0 in Big 12 Conference play since the 2007-08 season, when the Wildcats beat the Jayhawks inside of Bramlage Coliseum for the first time in school history.

Both teams are ranked — Kansas No. 4 and K-State No. 16 — and are tied for the Big 12 lead. Kansas has won five of the last eight matchups when both teams are ranked, and is 11-4 all-time when both teams are ranked.

K-State (15-2, 4-0) coach Bruce Weber, who will get his first exposure to the Sunflower Showdown, said he understands just how important the game is to fans. But he said the importance of the game goes beyond just that.

“It’s one of the things that’s most brought up, there is no doubt about that,” he said. “I told the guys it’s important, but it’s important because we’re in first place and they’re the number two RPI. Then if you win that one, next Saturday’s going to be really important at Iowa State.”

The Wildcats entered the 2007-08 game in the midst of a five-game winning streak in Frank Martin’s first year as coach. Led by Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, the Wildcats ended a 24-year home losing streak to the Jayhawks, and essentially reignited a basketball rivalry that had lost some flair.

Weber knows all about intense rivalries, serving as an assistant coach to Gene Keady at Purdue during some of the biggest Indiana-Purdue games ever. It was a matchup of Keady vs. Bob Knight, the two leaders in wins in the Big Ten. Weber said he saw some big knockdown, drag-out games and even police called. And there was drama on the court that made it even better.

Senior guard Rodney McGruder said he hasn’t taken much time to talk with Weber about the game. He said he understands just how important the game is, especially with a highly-ranked Jayhawk team coming in.

“I’m just excited to play any game,” he said. “Like coach says ‘seizing the moment, taking advantage of any moment you have,’ we have a top-10 team coming into our house. We have to take advantage of the opportunity we have.”

It will be the first time Weber and Kansas coach Bill Self have matched up in a rivalry setting. Weber coached against Self when he was at Southern Illinois and Self was at Tulsa and Illinois, and again when he was at Illinois and Self was at Kansas. Weber is 0-1 against the Jayhawks in his career.

Weber, who took over at Illinois for Self when he left for Kansas, said he has a lot of respect for what Self has been able to accomplish at KU.

“I don’t think people appreciate that he took over a job where Roy Williams was so beloved and did so much,” he said. “And then not only keep it going but maybe even take it a little further.”

The Jayhawks (16-1, 4-0) are currently riding a 15-game winning streak that began back on Nov. 15, the fourth longest streak under Self. Kansas is led by a pair of midseason Wooden Award candidates in center Jeff Withey and guard Ben McLemore.

Withey is blocking 4.6 shots per game and dictating the game plan for KU’s opponents.

Weber said his shot blocking ability is a tough thing to solve.

“It’s not only the ones he blocks, it’s the ones he makes you think about after he blocks your shot,” he said. “Some teams have been able to take advantage by getting away from the bucket, but now a few teams have done it and they’ve adjusted to it.”

McLemore is averaging 16.4 points per game as a freshman for the Jayhawks, higher than Danny Manning’s school-record 14.6 points per game in 1985. He had a 33-point performance against Iowa State this season, making all 12 of his shots from the field, including six 3-pointers.

Weber said McLemore is driving the Jayhawks, just as McGruder drives the Wildcats.

The Wildcats are 22-2 all-time against Kansas in Bramlage, but have won two of the last five meetings there.

Spradling said he expects a packed house and a loud crowd to go along with it. He said the key to the game is learning how to channel that emotion.

“You don’t want to get overly emotional because you’ll maybe come out too hard, and a lot of times on defense if you get too emotional you’re going to try and go for a steal and you might get beat,” he said. “You have to keep yourself calm, but feed off the energy too.”

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