It’s officially basketball season. If you’re a Chiefs fan, to ease your mind after Saturday’s debacle, you have to tell yourself that. If you don’t like basketball, there’s only 38 days til Royals pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Ariz., for spring training.
For me, it’s time to focus on college basketball. For the second straight year, the state of Kansas is the best state in college basketball. Wichita State is one of five undefeated teams left in division one basketball. K-State has somewhat shockingly played its way back onto the bubble with 10 straight wins.
Then there’s the Kansas Jayhawks.
Eight weeks ago when the Jayhawks beat Duke 84-73 in the United Center in Chicago, they looked like the best team in America. They moved up three spots to No. 2 in AP Poll. That mind boggling 10th straight Big 12 Title seemed like a sure bet.
But as we sit here today, nearly two months later, KU’s roller coaster season has the Big 12 race as wide open as its been in years. This conference is loaded. The two teams that were picked to win the league in the preseason polls, KU and Oklahoma State had a rough weekend, the Cowboys falling to K-State in Manhattan 74-71, and then the Jayhawks losing at home to San Diego State 61-57.
The latter ended a 68-game home winning streak against non-conference opponents. It was KU’s worst performance of the season, shooting 29.8% from the floor and getting outrebounded 51-39.
The Jayhawks have zero time whatsoever to feel sorry for themselves. KU was able to shake off that rough game against the Aztecs with a 90-83 victory last night at Oklahoma, the 20th consecutive season the Jayhawks have started conference play 1-0. After that they host the resurgent Wildcats, which is followed by a trip to Iowa State, which sits at 14-0. Then back-to-back home games against top 15 teams in Oklahoma State and Baylor.
Capturing Big 12 title number 10 isn’t going to be easy. In each of KU’s four losses, the opponent has been a team with experienced veteran leadership, something that the Jayhawks sorely lack. It starts in the backcourt. Guards Andrew Wiggins, Naadir Tharpe, Wayne Selden and Frank Mason have all had their moments when they look great, Wiggins against Florida, Selden Wednesday night against Oklahoma.
For the most part they just haven’t been consistent enough. Teams are going to double Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid until those four prove they can make you pay from the outside. The Jayhawks are ranked 207th in three point field goal percentage, making just 32.8 percent. But they made 8-of-16 from outside against the Sooners, which led to KU dominating the paint and Ellis pouring in 22 points.
Selden’s career high 24 points against OU was a step forward, but Wiggins looked soft yet again. Wiggins has to show an initiative to take the ball to the rim. That’s what made him a YouTube sensation and the No.1 overall player in last years recruiting class. It’s also what earned the ludicrous comparisons to Lebron James.
Next up for the Jayhawks is this weekends Sunflower Showdown. I feel it’s necessary to discuss it, much like I did before the football version in November. Stranger things have happened (Jim Wooldridge’s Wildcats beating KU in Lawrence in 2006) but I see almost no way KU doesn’t handle business Saturday. The Jayhawks are a horrendous matchup for K-State, as has seemingly been the case for the past 20 years.
For both teams, it’s been a tale of two seasons. If the Jayhawks started the year with a bang, K-State’s started with a resounding thud. A loss to Northern Colorado and two blowout losses in Puerto Rico had the Wildcats in a tailspin. But they haven’t lost since, ripping of 10 straight, three of which are against RPI top 25 teams. K-State is 3-0 vs. RPI top 25 teams and KU is 0-4. K-State and Michigan State are the only teams with three wins over Top 25 RPI teams.
In November I predicted that the margin of victory for KU in the basketball version of the Sunflower Showdown would be greater than the margin of victory for K-State on the football field. Bill Snyder’s Wildcats won by 21 points.
Obviously these two teams look a lot different than they did then, but 21 points is certainly doable for the Jayhawks. Since the bizarro 2006 game, when somehow Jim Wooldridge’s Wildcats beat KU 59-55, the Jayhawks have wiped the floor with K-State by an average margin of 19.6 points in Allen Fieldhouse.
The Wildcats rarely survive the first 10 minutes of the game in Allen Fieldhouse, let alone the entire 40 minutes. Since Bob Huggins took over in 2006, which is when K-State became relevant in basketball again, the average score at the 10-minute mark of the first half is 22-9. The largest lead the Wildcats have held in Lawrence? Two points. And both times it was the first two points of the contest.
The challenge for K-State is to get this young team to not be shaken by the lore of Allen Fieldhouse like nearly every team for the past 30 years has been.
December was a month to remember for the Wildcats. They are the top defensive team in the Big 12, holding opponents to 58.0 points per game. There are still warts though. They are still woefully short handed in the paint, and are dead last in the conference in scoring, at 67.7 points per game. The Wildcats are last in the conference in field goal percentage, ninth in free throw percentage and last in three-point field goal percentage.
For everything K-State lacks offensively, it makes up for defensively. The Wildcats have held 11 of their last 14 opponents to a season low in points, nine of those being held under 60 points.
Marcus Foster has been K-State’s best player, and he’s been great, but as this 10 game winning streak has progressed, it’s become obvious that Thomas Gipson is the player that drives the Wildcats. He’s the lone post threat for K-State, but Gipson has had his two worst games in a K-State uniform at Allen Fieldhouse:
2011: 0 Points, 2 Fouls, 3 Rebounds, 16 Minutes
2012: 0 Points, 5 Fouls, 3 Rebounds, 14 Minutes
Tuesday’s 65-47 win over TCU was K-State’s first true road game, and it was ugly. A slow, lethargic start, and 18 turnovers. If either take place in Lawrence on Saturday, KU will bury the Wildcats early yet again.
So where do these two teams that shared the Big 12 Title last year sit today? Both have been inconsistent. Through the first eight weeks of the season, it’s fair to say one team has over achieved and the other has under achieved.
KU isn’t nearly as bad as they looked Saturday. K-State probably isn’t nearly as good as they’ve played for the last month. Bruce Weber has had an easier time getting his young team to buy into his system than Bill Self has had with his and it shows in intensity.
Don’t be fooled. The Jayhawks schedule has been,
and will continue to be brutal, and that can be tough on a young team. Three of their four losses have come down to the last possession. This one likely won’t.
If K-State survives the first 10 minutes, it could get interesting. If not, history will repeat itself. Allen Fieldhouse has feasted on Wildcat teams much better than this one. It cares not about how hot or cold, how highly ranked, or how experienced a K-State team is. The outcome is almost always the same.