Kansas St.-Kansas Preview
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP)
Frank Martin flipped on the television after his team dispatched lowly Howard last weekend and watched Kansas do the same to North Dakota.
It didn't matter that the Jayhawks were facing a smaller school with low expectations or that many students were still on winter break. Allen Fieldhouse was rocking from the opening tip, even when Kansas stretched the lead to nearly 30 in the second half.
Just imagine what the atmosphere will be like Wednesday night.
The No. 23 Wildcats visit the No. 14 Jayhawks in the opener of a longer, tougher Big 12 schedule that could give one team's conference title hopes a major boost and the other's a debilitating blow.
"There's three major challenges," Martin said. "Bill Self and his coaching staff, their players and the culture they built, and then obviously the 16,000 sitting in the stands just don't let you communicate with your players. That's what you face every time you go in there.
"I don't want to make it sound simplistic, but it is what it is," Martin said. "Their crowd is amazing, and it makes it an incredible challenge for us and everybody else that goes in there."
The Jayhawks (10-3) shouldn't be intimated by the Wildcats, who moved into the Top 25 for the first time this season. Kansas already has faced Kentucky at Madison Square Garden, highly ranked teams in Duke and Georgetown in Hawaii and beaten Ohio State at their venerable on-campus field house.
They also have the swagger that comes with a school-record seven straight conference titles and have not lost a league opener since the 1991-92 season.
"I don't think anybody in the country would have an undefeated record if they've played the schedule that Kansas has played," said Martin, whose team is 11-1 with the lone loss in double overtime to West Virginia. "Kansas has lined up and played anybody and everybody, and anywhere."
The Wildcats soon will learn what that feels like.
After facing the Jayhawks, they return home for games against No. 7 Missouri and fourth-ranked Baylor, before visiting Oklahoma, which is off to a 10-2 start under Lon Kruger.
It's the start of an expanded 18-game conference schedule, the result of conference realignment that left just 10 teams this season. Everybody will play everybody twice, a brutal stretch of games that should separate championship contenders from teams simply trying to hang on.
"We're ready to go. Does that mean we have a chance to win? I've got no idea," Martin said. "But our guys have been good. They've answered the bell every time."
"What's going to happen in Big 12 play?" Martin asked. "I don't think anybody knows."
Self certainly doesn't profess to know.
He figures a team that finishes 14-4 in the conference will have a pretty good chance of at least sharing the Big 12 crown, something that's become expected on Naismith Drive.
It might not even take that many wins considering how difficult the league has become.
"It's good for our league to be good," Self said. "What you hope for is they're not good at your expense. But I like that there's interest in the games going on. I think our players like it, too."
There will be interesting matchups galore Wednesday night.
The premier one should be in the paint, where the Jayhawks' Thomas Robinson - fresh off a 30-point, 20-rebound performance against North Dakota that earned him his third Big 12 player of the week award - will go toe-to-toe with rugged forwards Jamar Samuels, Thomas Gipson and Jordan Henriquez.
On the perimeter, veteran guards Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford will be matched up against a young group of Wildcats that includes a freshman (Angel Rodriguez) and sophomore (Will Spradling) who have played beyond their years.
"I watched their progress this year, and they've become more noticeable on the national stage," Robinson said. "We've been practicing hard, and like I said once again, it's not going to come down to scouting reports and all that stuff. It's going to be a man's game."
There are a bunch of tough games still to come, followed by the conference tournament and the madness of March. But Taylor may have summed up what is on the line Wednesday night most succinctly.
"This is the first game of conference, and we have to understand, you can't win them all unless you win the first one," he said. "We have to start right here."