Kansas State sailed to the top of the Big 12 Saturday by defeating Iowa State at home, while KU dropped to second with a loss at Oklahoma. The Wildcats have now won four straight and sit at 8-2 in the conference, while Kansas is tied with Oklahoma State at 7-3. Those teams are following opposite trajectories, with the Jayhawks having now lost three straight while Oklahoma State has won five in a row. Yet with a huge match up tonight at Allen Fieldhouse for K-State, few outside the state still believe that anyone but KU will win the regular season championship.
Baylor and Iowa State theoretically have the talent to make a late push for the championship at 6-4 (Oklahoma, at 6-4, still looks like a pretender despite its home win over Kansas on Saturday). However, it’s likely a three horse race with eight games left in the year. Oklahoma State may seem the least likely bet of the three. The Cowboys came into league play ranked #24 with a 10-2 record built through a very unimpressive set of wins. Although it played Gonzaga within a point, Oklahoma State failed to defeat an opponent currently ranked (in fact, last week’s defeat of KU was the team’s first win against a ranked team all year). However, the Cowboys are aided by an easy schedule, with only four of their remaining eight games against teams with winning records in the league (should West Virginia lose again, only four of their remaining eight games will be against teams with winning records overall). Additionally, the home/away scheduling sets up favorably with Oklahoma, Kansas, and Kansas State all traveling to Stillwater while OSU must make the trek to Iowa State.
Kansas is in a downward spiral that K-State fans hope only continues on Monday night. Should K-State pull out a win in Lawrence, the Wildcats will have a two game lead against the Jayhawks. And as well as K-State has been playing, a conference championship will become the expectation. The rest of the schedule sets up relatively favorably for the Wildcats, with a challenging but doable home and away against Baylor and season ending game at Oklahoma State peppered in amongst games against the Big 12’s worst – TCU, Texas Tech, Texas, and West Virginia. The Wildcats already own one victory against each of these teams.
KU finishes the conference season at Baylor, and must also navigate games at Oklahoma State and Iowa State. However, of the games mentioned anywhere above, the one of greatest importance is the K-State/KU rubber match tomorrow night. A loss here would send the Jayhawks into a four game losing tailspin. So can K-State win that one? Aside from the first loss against OSU, KU’s other two losses have been on the road – and there’s a big difference between playing at home and playing in the Phog. Additionally, the Jayhawks have already proven better at Kansas State. None of these things will matter Monday.
K-State did an excellent job of shutting down Kansas during their last meeting, but KU did just a little better (59-55). The most glaring deficiency in that game was interior play – KU center Jame Withey owned the paint and K-State literally looked too scared to attack him. That shouldn’t be the case this time around. Bruce Weber seems comfortable with his new starting line up that features Jordan Henriquez for limited minutes before substituting Thomas Gipson. Henriquez is the only player with the height to match up against Withey, but lacks the bulk to withstand his play all night. However, Gipson’s size should allow him to challenge Withey defensively, while on offense Thomas has been averaging almost 13 points per game since Weber switched him to the bench. With Henriquez pushing Withey early and Gipson cleaning up, KU’s size should be neutralized. And I still take K-State’s guard play over Kansas’s.
It’s a mighty tall order to expect K-State to defeat KU, but with the Jayhawks reeling, this young(er) team may be ready to wilt under pressure. And although the Jayhawks should still easily bounce back with a home game against Texas (10-13, 2-8) next Saturday, if the Wildcats can get to 9-2 they should be in the driver’s seat for the first place seed in the Big 12 tournament come March.