The Kansas State men’s basketball team has had no shortage of tough competition this year. As the Wildcats (5-17, 1-12 Big 12) go through a rebuilding year they have had to play in arguably the toughest league in the nation, squaring off with nine ranked opponents already — that number will flip to 10 on Wednesday night as K-State clashes with in-state rival No. 23 Kansas (15-7, 9-5 Big 12).
The 295th edition of the Sunflower Showdown will mark the fifth game in a row that the Wildcats have had to face a ranked opponent — the longest stretch in school history.
The sixth-most played rivalry in the nation is typically known to have one of the best atmospheres in college basketball. On Wednesday night though, only 1,879 fans will be allowed inside Bramlage Coliseum because of COVID-19, a massive difference from the 12,528 capacity that Bramlage holds.
“For our young guys and new guys that haven’t experienced the atmosphere in Allen [Fieldhouse] or Bramlage, I wish they could have that experience because it’s one of the special games in college basketball and a special rivalry,” head coach Bruce Weber said at his press conference on Tuesday morning. “Both sides get pretty excited about it. You just wish you could have it, but we are having a game.”
Both teams already met once this season, two weeks ago on Feb. 2. That was the last time K-State had truly been blown out by an opponent, losing 74-51 to the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse.
Since then the Wildcats have played No. 13 Texas Tech, No. 13 Texas and No. 23 Oklahoma State — all being games that the Wildcats put themselves in good opportunities to win.
So now the big question is, can K-State flip the switch and finally turn these close losses into a victory? If so, there is no better opponent to do it against than their arch-rival.
While Kansas is no slouch, they are not necessarily the traditional powerhouse that the program is used to, struggling to even stay inside the top 25 as of late. Since having an abysmal January, going 3-5 throughout that month, the Jayhawks have kept themselves afloat, going 4-1 throughout February so far and winning their last three games, including knocking off No. 23 Oklahoma State.
All five Jayhawk starters are impressively averaging double-digit scoring throughout the season, led by junior guard Ochai Agbaji who has averaged 13.9 points per game. Agbaji is followed closely by junior forward David McCormack who is averaging 13 points per game.
“I think they’ve evolved as a team,” Weber said. “You figure out ways you can score. They’re getting Agbaji in the pin down quite a bit. He’s really good at that. McCormack is one of the most improved guys in the league. As the season has gone on, they’ve made a commitment to get him the ball.”
On paper, the Jayhawks truly only struggle in one category and that is defending the three-point ball, ranking seventh in the Big 12 Conference in that category. K-State by far shoots the most three’s in the conference, attempting 477 up to this point, leading the next closest team by 47 attempts.
The problem is they have only converted on 146 of those attempts, leaving them dead last in the Big 12 in three-point percentage.
Freshman guard Nijel Pack has been a bright spot from behind the arch though, as he is shooting 41.5 percent from three, leading the team. Pack was held to his lowest-scoring game of 2021 the last time out against the Jayhawks though, scoring only 10 points.
The result of this was glaring on the scoreboard as the Wildcats lost by 23 points.
“I think Nijel got out of his pace a little bit [the last time against KU],” Weber said. “They made him rush. They blitzed ball screens. Anytime he came off a cut, they jammed him. I talked with him yesterday after practice. We showed him some stuff. Just keep a good pace and make the next pass. One of the keys will be not only Nijel, but our other guys playing off their defense. Make them continuously rotate.”
One big question mark on the game on Wednesday night is the status of DaJuan Gordon. Out since the Texas A&M game on Jan. 30 with an ankle injury, the sophomore guard has missed four straight games.
Weber mentioned in his press conference that there is a possibility for him to be limited on Wednesday night or for Saturday’s contest at TCU.
Everything is going to have to come together in a big way on Wednesday night for K-State to come away with a massive upset over their in-state rival. But crazier things have happened in this historic series that dates back to 1907.
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. and can be seen live on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.