'Cats Grab the Rail, and 'Hawks Look for Hope

Let’s face it…at about seven o’clock on the evening on January 9th, Kansas State looked dead. Their dream follow-up to an unlikely Elite 8 season was in shambles. Already 0-2 in the Big 12 they were down 21 at home to West Virginia, with road games at Iowa State and Oklahoma to follow…at that point probably the most disappointing team in the country. But they rallied to beat West Virginia, and they haven’t lost in the league since, capping it with their emotional 74-67 win over Kansas last night. They sent the Jayhawks two games behind them in the loss column with a tiebreaker, and now play a first-place showdown with Baylor on Saturday in Waco.

     Since the ‘Cats were a slight favorite, there was the standard twitter trolling about storming the court, but it was understandable. K-State wins against their in-state rival at Bramledge Coliseum have been paralyzingly rare, and the three core seniors on the team, Barry Brown, Dean Wade, and Kamau Stokes hadn’t won period against the Jayhawks.

     Too many times for the Wildcat faithful, Kansas has come in and jumped K-State at the outset of games in Bramledge, and killed the usual wild enthusiasm. Not this time. K-State jumped out 10-3 and the only KU basket was a banked-in three-pointer. The game appeared to be teetering toward a blowout as halfway through the first twenty minutes, K-State had already put up 26 points and were up by eight.

     But here’s where the K-State that had many, including their own coach Bruce Weber, scratching their heads all season reared up, the one that can’t score, and operates against a zone as if the strategy were invented yesterday. Bill Self likes playing zone as much as a root canal, but he needed an anesthetic after his man-to-man was on its way to giving up a hundred.

     K-State numbly lobbed the ball around the defense to bad shot after bad shot, missing fourteen in a row, and they trailed by three at the half. The murmuring in the concourses at Bramledge was a whole lot different than the deafening noise after ten minutes.

     It took a couple of minutes, but whatever Bruce Weber reminded his players about at halftime that he no doubt had instructed them about playing zone offense, clicked in. K-State would end up scoring 74 points in the thirty-one other minutes besides the drought, and eased on home 74-67.

     Clutch wins at this time of year are what have crafted KU’s fourteen- year conference run, often coming at a time when they looked vulnerable. But this time it didn’t come, and at 6-4, they have their worst ten game conference record since before the Big 12 began. Anyone who declares them dead and buried is a fool, but they are being wheeled to the emergency room.

     They have a soft schedule the rest of the way, but does a team that is now 1-6 on the road, and 8-6 with the team they will have the rest of the way, make you think that they can go 7-1, likely what it would take to grab at least a share of the title and extend the streak? That seems dicey, but certainly not impossible. They have Bill Self to try and do it, and he has already squeezed an 8-2 record out of this squad in games decided by five points of less, or in overtime. That’s a sign of both his skill, and the team’s limitations. The Jayhawks are now 9-14 against the spread, ranking about 300th in the country.

     Kansas has obvious weaknesses, but certainly room for growth. They are a mediocre three-point shooting team, and their best outside gun, Lagerald Vick, has spent the season (career???) in and out of Self’s doghouse. Much of the best that Kansas showed last night came with Mitch Lightfoot and Charlie Moore on the court, and that can’t be good.,and the lack of help for Dedrick Lawson is making it far easier for teams to limit him.

     But… Devon Dotson has been solid and can make more strides, Quentin Grimes can find a groove, Ochai Agbaji looks like a real weapon, and Marcus Garrett will soon be back from injury. But Self needs several questions answered yes to make the run they need.

     So, there you go ‘Cats, the ball is really in your court. K-State has an immediate chance to do what KU has so often done, take this win and run with it. They immediately head to Baylor, a game that at least will be for a share of first depending on the Bears game tonight at Texas. A win in that game is not mandatory, but it would be the sign of a champion.

     This is hardly going to be easy for KSU. Five of their nine games are on the road, including the return game with Kansas. They have five games until then, and it would certainly behoove them to keep their distance from the Jayhawks, because the tiebreaker they currently hold, seems pretty likely to be neutered with that game.

     Even in their win last night, the ‘Cats showed nothing to stop opponents from throwing a lot of zone at them. And even after the last two games when they have made 26 of them, they are still hitting less than a third of their threes. But if the improved shooting is the start of a trend, then the ‘Cats will be hard to beat, because there has not been any wavering in their calling card defense. They have yet to allow a league opponent to score 70, and have kept six of their nine foes in the fifties.

     You can make a case for all five teams in the upper half of the league to be champs. That is what last night did. If Kansas had done their usual thing, only Baylor would have less losses, and the Bears have played two less games, and probably would be the team deemed least likely to be a true threat. KU still is likely to be favored in all of their games except at Texas Tech, so they are holding on to the chance for a fifteenth straight by far more than a string.

     But for once, you now really can’t make them the favorite.  

Danny Clinkscale