There will be a lot at stake on Tuesday evening at Bramlage Coliseum when the No. 16 K-State men’s basketball team takes on in-state rival No. 4 Kansas.
The Jayhawks, led by freshman phenom Ben McLemore, are once again the team to beat in the Big 12 Conference. They’ve won 15 straight games since falling to No. 18 Michigan State, their only loss of the season, including a victory over then-No. 7 Ohio State in Columbus.
KU is 4-0 in the Big 12 so far, and the only game that was competitive was an overtime thriller on the road against Iowa State on Jan. 9.
The Wildcats, under first-year head coach Bruce Weber, have quietly made their way into the top 20, picking up big wins against then-seventh ranked Florida and then-No. 22 Oklahoma State. K-State’s only two losses came against top-10 teams, No. 8 Gonzaga and then-No. 4 Michigan.
Senior guard Rodney McGruder has become a consistent scoring threat after a somewhat slow start, and with Weber’s “starting eight” philosophy players like sophomore forward Nino Williams, junior guard Shane Southwell and sophomore forward Thomas Gipson have had the opportunity to contribute as well.
Despite their solid start to the season, the Wildcats haven’t generated much attention on a national scale. In the AP Poll, K-State, at 15-2, is ranked behind six other schools with two losses, including Florida. Florida not only lost to K-State, but has a less impressive record at 14-2. The USA Today Coaches Poll has the Wildcats ranked 18th, nine spots behind the Gators.
ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects K-State as a seventh seed in the NCAA Tournament, while giving Kansas a top seed. When Bill Self leads Kansas into the Octagon of Doom on Tuesday, everyone outside of the Little Apple will expect him to leave with a victory.
K-State isn’t supposed to stand a chance against their mighty rivals from the east.
No one will be surprised if KU rolls through their Big 12 schedule undefeated, wraps up a number one or two seed in the NCAA Tournament and makes a Final Four run, because that’s what KU does.
In short, the Jayhawks have nothing to gain, and everything to lose. The Wildcats, on the other hand, have everything to gain. If the Cats can make some magic happen next week they would put themselves in an excellent position to end KU’s Big 12 title run at eight straight.
After the Kansas schools, the conference isn’t exactly formidable, boasting no other ranked teams since Oklahoma State dropped out after losing to the Wildcats.
Furthermore, with another top-10 win, the nation would be forced to pay attention to K-State. Beating the fourth-ranked team in the nation is a big deal, and it should propel the Cats into the top 10.
Needless to say, beating a projected one-seed would do wonders for the Wildcats’ postseason resume. A win would likely put K-State in the running for a three or four seed, which would give them a much easier shot at a deep tournament run. It will take quite a showing from K-State to vanquish the Jayhawks. Seven-foot center Jeff Withey, whose enormous wingspan makes him one of the premier shot blockers in the country, will present a challenge on the boards for 6-foot-11-inch Jordan Henriquez and 6-foot-7-inch Gipson.
The KU frontcourt of senior point guard Elijah Johnson, McLemore, and senior guard Travis Releford, all taller than 6-foot-4-inches, will be a tough matchup for K-State’s McGruder (6-foot-4-inches), junior guard Will Spradling (6-foot-2-inches) and sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez (5-foot-11-inches).
It won’t be easy, but if the Wildcats can play the gritty, lockdown defense they brought in their upset of a much larger Florida team and use the atmosphere of a packed Bramlage Coliseum to their advantage, they could give K-State students one heck of a welcome back present on the first day of the spring semester.
Mike Stantonis a freshman in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to [email protected].