Oklahoma St.-Kansas St. Preview
Kansas State came up short last weekend in Stillwater, but it all worked out as a loss by a conference rival gave it a share of the Big 12 title.
The 11th-ranked Wildcats will have nowhere to look for help on Friday night when they meet No. 14 Oklahoma State for the second time in seven days - this time with a berth in the conference tournament championship at stake.
Tied with Kansas atop the Big 12 heading into last Saturday's game against the Cowboys (24-7), Kansas State (26-6) had its six-game winning streak - and 3-0 run in this series - snapped with a 76-70 loss.
The Wildcats, though, ended up sharing the regular-season title - their first since winning the Big Eight in 1976-77 - with the Jayhawks, who lost later Saturday at Baylor.
Kansas State got off to a nice start in the quarterfinals, defeating Texas 66-49 on Thursday. First-team All-Big 12 pick Rodney McGruder scored 12 points in each half and matched a program record for field goals (10) in a conference tournament game to help Kansas State end a three-game skid in this event.
"We're living into the second day,'' said Bruce Weber, the Big 12 coach of the year. "Now let's see if we can get to the championship (on Saturday against No. 1 seed Kansas or Iowa State).''
The Wildcats have been there only once before, a 2010 loss to the Jayhawks.
The third-seeded Cowboys are on the verge of their first championship game appearance since winning their second consecutive title in 2005. Oklahoma State, though, knows it will have to play a full 40 minutes against the Wildcats after nearly blowing a 20-point lead in Thursday's 74-72 victory over sixth-seeded Baylor.
Freshman Phil Forte's two free throws with 2.9 seconds were the difference, as Oklahoma State survived a 24-point second-half explosion by Big 12 scoring leader Pierre Jackson.
"We know (Kansas State is) a good team, and it'll be a good battle," said sophomore Le'Bryan Nash, who led all scorers last Saturday with 24 points. "We have to come out stronger than we did tonight.''
While it wasn't an ideal way to start the tournament, the Cowboys have to feel good about the play of Marcus Smart, the third Big 12 player - Texas' Kevin Durant and Kansas State's Michael Beasley were the others - to win conference player of the year and rookie of the year in the same season.
With 21 points in the quarterfinals, Smart has reached 20 in a season-best three consecutive games.
If Smart declares for the NBA draft like many expect, and this ends up being his final game against Kansas State, the Wildcats would probably support that decision. Smart hit 7 of 11 field-goal attempts in both matchups, finishing with 21 points, six assists and six rebounds last Saturday and 25 points and five boards in a 73-67 loss in Manhattan on Jan. 5.
McGruder has been a matchup nightmare for the Cowboys, hitting half of his 34 shots and totaling 50 points with nine rebounds.
McGruder is 26 points shy of tying Cartier Martin for seventh all-time at Kansas State with 1,546. He also needs 16 boards to move into seventh place with 650.
These teams have met once in the Big 12 tournament, an 83-64 Wildcats quarterfinal victory in 2010.