It’s amazing how much can change in a year in college athletics.
(Kansas State senior Shane Southwell puts up a shot against George Washington on Dec. 31 at Bramlage Coliseum).
Last season, when Kansas State traveled to Lawrence, they faced a Kansas team trying to fight out of a three-game skid that included a loss to Oklahoma State at home and a loss on the road at TCU.
But that Jayhawks team, a veteran group that also featured freshman Ben McLemore, refused to let another team beat them. Especially when that team was K-State, which sat ahead of them in the Big 12 standings and threatened to break the Jayhawks’ streak of eight consecutive conference titles.
By the midpoint of the first half, it was playing out like the previous six games in Lawrence. The Jayhawks were making a big run, and the Wildcats were folding.
“We had veteran guys that went in there, and it’s not always who you play but when you play them,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “Obviously, when we went there we weren’t playing them at a good time. They had lost three in a row and we were ahead of them. They didn’t want us to get another step on them so we caught their best.”
The Jayhawks went on to win the game, 83-62, and pick up their seventh straight win over the Wildcats at home.
But the majority of the key players from that game are gone. When the teams meet in Lawrence on Saturday, just a season later, both will be putting inexperienced groups on the court that have taken their lumps this season. The game in Allen Fieldhouse is scheduled for a 1 p.m. tip.
The No. 25 Wildcats (12-3, 2-0 Big 12) saw their losses come early, losing to Northern Colorado and starting out 2-3 before winning their next 10, including victories against Mississippi, Gonzaga, George Washington, and opening conference play with a win over No. 6 Oklahoma State.
No. 18 Kansas has lost four games, including its nonconference finale to San Diego State, this past Sunday at home. It will be the third time in the last four seasons that K-State will be playing at Allen Fieldhouse following the Jayhawks’ last home loss.
Names like McLemore and Jeff Withey — Travis Releford even — might be gone, but they’re replaced by freshmen sensations in Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden.
“It’s different than last year in that they had so much experience last year,” Weber said. “They had pretty talented guys, but their main thing was experience — their defense, their toughness, their belief that they were the champions and no one could beat them. This year you’ve got a lot of talent, probably three NBA first-round picks, at least, on the roster. You’ve got a lot of talent, but not quite the experience.
“They’re beatable, but they’re very talented, and we’re going to have to play a really good game. It takes discipline and it takes execution.”
The Jayhawks are led by Wiggins, who averages 15.3 points per game. He was the No. 1 prospect in the 2013 recruiting class and is, by some, the top prospect for this summers NBA Draft.
But where they can give teams even more trouble is in the frontcourt, where they feature the 7-foot tall Embiid and sophomore Perry Ellis. The post duo are combining for 23 points and 13 rebounds per game, and are backed up by physical players in Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor.
“They just have so much (post) depth,” Weber said. “Last year they had a few guys. This year you’ve got Black — a veteran starter at Memphis. If they do get in foul trouble, he’s coming in, he’s a stud. They have so much depth there. The freshman kid (Embiid) is special. He’s made a lot of improvement.”
K-State will of course counter with its smaller frontcourt lineup, led by 6-foot-7 forwards Thomas Gipson and Wesley Iwundu.
But the Wildcats have had success against taller teams with that lineup in the past two seasons, and Gipson said they’ll be ready for the challenge ahead.
“They’re strong, they’re tall, but I’ve faced that before, we’ve all faced that before,” Gipson said. “It’s just going to be another challenge going on the road and getting a win.”
For senior Shane Southwell, it will be his last time playing in Allen Fieldhouse, where he has seen, essentially, the same game play out all three years he’s been there. The Wildcats would stick around early, the Jayhawks would go on a run, and then K-State would be playing from behind the rest of the way.
Southwell said it can be tough to get into the right frame of mind before playing there, but it can be done.
“The last three times playing there you either come out too loose because you’re excited, and then the other side of the nerves is you’re timid and they jump out on you,” he said. “You’ve got to find a balance between being aggressive but also being smart and disciplined.”
The Jayhawks have won the last five matchups between the teams and 12 of the last 13 games, including two in the Big 12 tournament. KU has won the last seven times both teams were ranked for the game.
The Wildcats are on a 10-game winning streak going into the game and haven’t won 11 straight since 1977.