Drama... for the Moment Anyway

     Kansas and Kansas State were picked first and second in the Big 12 basketball race before the season began. Now as we approach the halfway point in league play, they are right in those spots, but they have gotten there in unconventional fashion, in Kansas’s case by their own standards, for Kansas State, by anyone’s.

     Both teams sit at 5-2 after winning head to head matchups with other co-leaders in the league on Monday and Tuesday night, Kansas edging Iowa State, and K-State handling Texas Tech with relative ease. Edging has been the watchword for KU, as they have yet to beat anyone by double figures in league play. Fans at Allen Field House used to coronations have been biting their fingernails in the closing minutes. Last year was the first time in Bill Self’s tenure that his team had gone seven games deep in league play without a double-digit win. That has now happened again, but the bottom line is that in those 14 close games, KU has won 11 of them.

     Kansas State a couple of weeks ago looked like perhaps the entire nations biggest disappointment. Opening the year at number 12 in the polls, the ‘Cats looked unimpressive when they did win, and dropped four games, including their first two in the league. Then at West Virginia they were down 21 with road games against ranked teams looming in their next two outings. 0-5 in the Big 12 looked almost probable. But they rallied in Morgantown, won at the buzzer in Ames, and cruised in Norman before the Tech win, and presto, they are tied at the top with the Jayhawks.

     All of a sudden Bruce Weber’s crew looks the part, too. It’s not a sexy part mind you. The Wildcats are barely averaging sixty points a game, although their offense has looked a whole lot better since Dean Wade has come back into the lineup. With Wade, Kamau Stokes, and Barry Brown operating at a level that was expected of them, KSU has a viable offense, which is really all that is necessary because their defense is withering. It’s not just the numbers, which are good, it’s the eye test. When you watch a ‘Cats game, possession after possession you see bad shots by the opposition, often casting something up as the shot clock is winding down. Either that or turning it over. K-State almost never presses, yet they lead the league in creating turnovers. Bad shots or no shot by the opponent is a pretty darn good way to operate.

      Bruce Weber deserves great praise for getting buy in out of his guys. It really is a clear definition that defense is in large part about effort and paying attention to scouting, since K-State is hardly the most athletic team in the conference, and they don’t have a legitimate defensive post presence. They have the unlikely combination of the best scoring defense in the league, while ranking last in blocked shots.

     Seven games is clearly a small sample size, but if you just looked at league rankings, you would think there is no way that KU would be in first place along with the ‘Cats. KU has outscored their opponents by a mere 1.3 points per game, and in most offensive and defensive categories, they are middle of the pack, or worse. They have a mighty unusual statistical combination of their own, being the league’s leading scoring team while being eighth in assists.

     There is one easy explanation for that. Dedrick Lawson. Lawson is so easily the player of the year in the league thus far. It’s hard to even fathom where KU would be if he wasn’t on the squad. Leading the league in scoring and rebounding, he operates down low basically needing almost no help from his teammates to score. It does get a little old to have to hear game after game on each telecast about how he’s not athletic. It’s not the freaking decathlon, it’s basketball. Lawson knows how to play it.

     It is bad news for the rest of the league that Kansas has pulled out most of their close ones, because it would seem that they will only get better. They are still adjusting to the loss of Udoke Azibuike. They somehow lately have turned Marcus Garret from a complete and utter non-factor on offense into a weapon. That has helped make up for the still tepid performance from freshman Quentin Grimes, who you would expect to see an uptick from. Pulling the redshirt from Ochai Agbaji, which seemed like a bit of circumstantial desperation, has instead been somewhat of a revelation.

     It has been a fool’s errand to pick against KU to win the league, and it should be considered so again. The Jayhawks margin of error is clearly less than in years past, but it comes in a context of a league that has mostly good teams, but not a great one. The best candidates to be at least close to that are the two from the Sunflower State.

     The next four games will tell us a lot about Kansas. They play at Kentucky, at Texas, home against Tech, and at K-State. The fact that the first matchup of the Kansas schools is in Manhattan should heighten the tension, because if trends continue, you would figure the ‘Cats would be a slight favorite in that game.

     K-State has it soft before that February 5th matchup. Their SEC game Saturday is at Texas A and M, which is awful, and then they get Oklahoma State at home. Sure, K-State has enough offensive deficiencies that an upset is always possible, but it’s very likely that K-State will be tied or ahead of Kansas heading into the game.

     The games in the Little Apple often have a lot of hype, but KU has usually dampened the enthusiasm. They have won the last three there, after K-State had grabbed two in a row. K-State will likely have re-entered the polls by then, so it will be as highly anticipated a game as we have had in a while in Manhattan.

     That was expected before the season, but for a while it sure didn’t look like anything to be excited about. K-State’s five game winning streak has made it so again.

     But the league race will likely only have real drama if the Cat’s scratch on February 5th.

Danny Clinkscale