Suddenly resurgent Kansas State will put its four-game win streak on the line with a chance to move into a tie for first place in the Big 12 Conference when its hosts No. 5 Kansas on Monday.
Kansas State (16-5, 5-3 Big 12) has not trailed in a conference game since a brief one-point deficit in the first half against Oklahoma on Jan. 16. The Wildcats defeated the Sooners 87-69 with a second-half eruption, then led wire-to-wire at home against TCU and at Baylor. In their most recent game, they overcame a second-half deficit to defeat Georgia 56-51 on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“They’re a good team,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said of Georgia following the win. “(We) had to find a way to grind it out. It took focus on our part.”
Kansas (17-4, 6-2) defeated Texas A&M 79-68 on Saturday after losing 85-80 at Oklahoma on Tuesday to fall back a game closer to a cluster of four teams, including the Wildcats.
Oklahoma fouled center Udoka Azubuike repeatedly in the second half to come from behind, and Azubuike missed all but one of his eight free throws. Kansas coach Bill Self blamed himself for not taking Azubuike out in crunch time, and said he expects other teams to do the same thing if he leaves in his big man, who is shooting 37.5 percent from the line.
“Bad decision,” Self said after Tuesday’s game. “It was on me, for this game. I did not do our team any favors.
“I’ve always been a big believer that you send a bad message to somebody (that) you don’t have confidence in him, especially when you know he’ll have to play every big minute pushing forward.”
This series is lopsided in Kansas’ favor, but not as much as it was a decade ago. Kansas won 25 straight games from 1983-2007 on the Wildcats’ home floor. But K-State has won four of the last 10 games in Manhattan.
“I hope we’re ready (for Kansas),” Weber said Saturday. “Being at home doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a win. They’re good. They know how to make plays. They find ways to win games. You have to find a way to make plays when it counts.”
The Wildcats have been hot of late, winning five of their last six, with the lone loss a 73-72 nail-biter in Lawrence on Jan. 13. That run has corresponded with the insertion into the lineup of backup point guard Cartier Diarra. Starting guard Kamau Stokes took his 13.4 points per game to the bench with a broken bone in his foot against Texas Tech.
Diarra has averaged 13.2 points per game in his six starts. Guard Barry Brown also has picked up the slack. He’s averaging 22.0 points in those games, compared with 17.3 on the season. With Stokes nearing a return, Weber will have some interesting options at his disposal.
For Kansas, it’s a matter of sticking with what’s worked. Self, in his 15th season at KU, has won all but one conference championship in his time there. He relies on strong guard play, a dependable big man (at least away from the free-throw line) and a solid defense.
And he knows that his team will have its hands full against the rival Wildcats.
“(K-State has) found ways to win games in the 50s, found ways to win games in the 80s,” Self said following Saturday’s victory over Texas A&M. “They’re a good team. They don’t beat themselves.”
The Jayhawks are looking to extend their record of consecutive conference titles won or shared to an NCAA record of 14.