MANHATTAN, Kan. — Eventually, you just have to throw up your hands and embrace the crazy. Reach out, hug that sucker with both arms, and love it for all its cuckoo glory.
What was supposed to be Kansas and the Little Nine is, with a month left of regular season, one giant pineapple upside-down cake of bonkers. It’s a six-team horse race in the Big 12, and Kansas State — yep, K-State — leads at the turn by a nostril.
“Being a leader, I have to let guys know that this is not what we work for, just to be first place on February 9,” Rodney McGruder, the Wildcats’ senior sharpshooter, told FOX Sports Kansas City after No. 13 K-State moved into first, all by itself, with a 79-70 win over Iowa State.
“We want to be first place on March 9. So that’s what our main goal is, just to not stay complacent and just keep working and just do the things that got us here right now.”
While the Jayhawks have dropped three in a row and have their fan base reaching for sharp objects, the Wildcats keep sort of plodding along, doing their thing.
It’s been steady, simple and effective: Turn up the nasty on defense (K-State notched eight steals on Saturday, and scored 27 points off Cyclone turnovers), crash the boards (K-State had 20 second-chance points to Iowa State’s 10), and get to the free-throw line (K-State had 22 attempts versus the Cyclones, converting on 18 of them).
“Does it feel good? Yeah, ” K-State point guard Angel Rodriguez said. “But we can’t settle.”
“Enjoy the night, come (Sunday), get prepared and go at it,” offered Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, whose team improved to 8-2 in league play and 19-4 overall. “We’ve just got to focus on one game at a time. I told the kids all (that) stuff, and at the (end), I just said, ‘Have fun. Enjoy each other. Enjoy the moment.’ Because that’s all you can do.”
They won’t be able to enjoy it for very long — a visit to No. 5 Kansas, coming off its worst week in eight years, is on the docket Monday night. It’s the Sunflower Showdown, Part II: A pair of Big 12 heavyweights, separated by roughly 80 miles, and going in completely opposite directions.
Since Jan. 30, the Wildcats are 4-0; the Jayhawks are 1-3. Over the past 10 days, K-State’s kept to a fairly straight path; Kansas has veered all over the road.
“Our whole league is really a lot of new guys,” Weber said. “That’s one of the reasons Kansas played so well early; they had older guys. (I) hope it’s our seniors. Hope it’s our guys believing.”
And to think: Seven weeks ago, the Jayhawks were destroying everything in their path and the Wildcats couldn’t buy a bucket. It would be a stretch to say the roles have reversed, although you wouldn’t be that far off, either.
At the moment, Kansas’ backcourt has devolved from a veteran strength to a colossal liability; the Wildcats, in the meantime, have shot 40.6 percent — 28 of 69 — from beyond the arc over their past four contests.
“It’s amazing to see,” chuckled McGruder, who dropped 22 on the Cyclones and is 5 for 8 from beyond the arc over his last three appearances. “You know, we had those back-to-back losses (to Kansas and Iowa State in late January), and who could’ve known that we would be in first place a couple weeks later?”
There’s a circle of trust building in Manhattan, on multiple levels. McGruder and the other upperclassmen have a firm comfort level running Weber’s motion offense. Plus, everybody knows their respective role: K-State’s veteran bigs — lean, 6-foot-11 Jordan Henriquez and beefy, 6-7 Thomas Gipson — are platooned, for example, in order to maximize the best matchup. Henriquez started on Saturday, but only played eight minutes; Gipson came off the bench and tore up the smallish Cyclones with 16 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
Every game promises a different hero, a different subplot. And — publicly, at least — nobody seems to be complaining. Chemistry, as Weber knows full well, can be a fickle mistress.
“You know, we’ve talked about being what we are,” the Wildcats’ coach allowed. “We may not have great athleticism and quickness, but we have a great group. We have guys that work at it and like each other. And that’s what we’ve got to focus on, being a great team.”
The last time the Jayhawks and Wildcats met while both ranked in the Associated Press poll — with K-State was the higher of the two, — you’ve got to go all the way back to March 8, 1958. (Kansas won, 61-44.) And this is the latest K-State has been alone in first place since February 12, 2008 — the Wildcats were 7-1 in the Big 12 at the time; Kansas was 8-2.
“When they came in here, (the Jayhawks) coaches told our coaches, ‘We don’t know how good we are, but we believe we can win,'” Weber said.