Neither Kansas team has had the season it wanted to have this year.
The Kansas State women are six games under .500, ninth in the Big 12 and likely to miss the postseason for just the second time in the last 13 seasons. The Jayhawks, coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, are just one game better than the Wildcats in the league standings and need three more wins to get even in the win column.
But don’t tell either of these teams there’s nothing to play for when they meet Wednesday night in Lawrence for the final Sunflower Showdown of the season, beginning at 7 p.m. and available to watch online at ESPN3.com.
The Wildcats are playing for pride after losing to their rival, 71-64, on Jan. 25 in Manhattan. But K-State could also play the role of spoiler for a Jayhawks team still fighting for a chance at reaching the WNIT.
“I’m trying to prepare for the hard and fast elements of playing KU, but if we were to win and you’re in that spoiler role, then I guess that adds another layer to the rivalry,” K-State coach Deb Patterson said Monday afternoon.
“But they beat us the first time around on our own floor, so we know we have our hands full, because they have so much to play for right now. They’ve established late in the season that they still have some kick in their step… they’re still playing for the postseason.”
Kansas (12-15, 5-10 Big 12) let a three-point halftime lead against Oklahoma slip away on Saturday, only to lose 64-61 in Norman, Okla. The Wildcats (10-16, 4-11) have lost two straight games and five of their last six — including a 61-40 loss at home to West Virginia this past Saturday.
It’s been an up and down season for K-State overall. Despite their obvious struggles, the Wildcats have had a couple nice league wins, both at home, against Iowa State and Oklahoma. But the brief flashes of excellence have come with a lot of inconsistency from the youngest roster K-State has had since the 1977-78 season.
The K-State coaches believe the pieces are here — they’re just young. It’s a group highlighted by freshman point guard Leti Romero, who leads the Wildcats in points (13.9), rebounds (5.7) and assists (4.6) per game.
While Romero has led the charge, the other freshmen around her — 6-foot-5 center Bre Lewis, backup post Jessica Sheble and energetic guard Kindred Wesemann — have all improved during the course of the season.
But improvement hasn’t necessarily equaled victories.
“You have to constantly keep perspective, but be aware of holding the expectations high, and then understanding as well how close you are to improving at this, that and the other,” Patterson said, in trying to describe the balance it takes to coach a young squad. “You do need perspective on who you are and where you’re at, but you also need perspective on what can make you better and where you want to go after every game — a loss or a win.”
For example, the Wildcats were embarrassed the first time they played West Virginia — a 40-point blowout in Morgantown two weeks ago. But on Saturday, though still a loss, Patterson saw drastic improvement against a team that has won 11 of its last 12 games and is ranked in the Top 15.
“You have to remember, these young players, they’re seeing bodies, systems and teams every time they take the floor that are very new,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of youth on the floor… playing around Leti. She’s still young. I guarantee you there’s not a lot of times in her life, nor Kindred’s, they’ve played against a team with bodies like West Virginia.”
But with the recent string of losses down the final stretch, might it be natural for a certain amount of frustration to set in? Patterson says no. She said the focus is to move forward in the final three regular-season games and upcoming Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.
“Some people might think that losses just pile up on you,” she said. “But when you’re a competitor, the last loss is what you deal with and it’s moving forward. Sometimes I think people think we’re focusing on, ‘well, that’s our fourth loss.’ You’re not thinking about that. You’re just trying to get that next win.
“The mindset is just different when you’re the ones living it.”
Following Wednesday’s game at KU, the Wildcats will travel to Stillwater, Okla., to face the Cowgirls on Saturday afternoon before returning to Bramlage Coliseum on Monday for senior night against TCU.