LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Pride and in-state bragging rights won’t be the only things motivating Kansas when it opens Big 12 play against Kansas State tonight at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We’ve got something to protect,” forward Thomas Robinson said.
Robinson was referring to the Big 12 title. The Jayhawks have won the last seven of them. Extending the streak to eight won’t be easy for a team that’s as low on talent and depth as it’s been at any time during Bill Self’s tenure.
Still, along with a national player of the year candidate in Robinson, Kansas has something that no other Big 12 team can boast: Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have won 82 of their last 83 games in the historic gym. Year after year, Big 12 teams travel to Lawrence with visions of upsetting KU on its home court. Almost all of them leave feeling dominated.
No one knows that better than Kansas State.
The Wildcats have blossomed into one of the Big 12's top teams and have defeated Kansas twice in Manhattan (in 2008 and 2011) in recent years. But Kansas State hasn’t been able to compete with the Jayhawks in Lawrence, where it has dropped its last five games by an average of 18 points.
Kansas State was embarrassed by 27 points at Allen Fieldhouse during Bob Huggins’ lone season in 2006-07. One year later, NBA draft picks Michael Beasley and Bill Walker were thumped by 14 points by a KU squad that went on to win the NCAA title.
Kansas beat Kansas State by 24 points in Lawrence last season -- just three weeks before losing to Jacob Pullen and the Wildcats in Manhattan by 16.
In some ways this game has been more about the building than the teams.
“There’s three major challenges,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “Bill Self and his coaching staff, their players and the culture they’ve 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. Their crowd is amazing, and it makes it an incredible challenge for us and everyone that goes in there.”
Kansas will need its crowd more than ever Wednesday. The No. 15 Jayhawks are 10-3 with losses to Kentucky, Duke and Davidson. This is a good team, but certainly not a great one -- at least by Kansas standards.
Point guard Tyshawn Taylor is averaging 3.8 turnovers, shooting guard Elijah Johnson and small forward Travis Releford are talented but inconsistent and there are no high-level backups for Robinson and center Jeff Withey.
If there was ever a time that Kansas was vulnerable, this is it.
Just don’t tell that to the Jayhawks.
“We want to start the conference right,” said Robinson, who averages 17.7 points and 12.2 rebounds. “Now we’re playing for keeps. That’s our conference title. We’ve got seven. We want eight.”
Getting off to a good start in league play won’t be easy against a Kansas State squad that’s 11-1 with convincing wins over then-No. 21 Alabama and Long Beach State, a team Kansas struggled to beat.
The Wildcats no longer have their star guard in Pullen, who scored 38 points in last season’s win over Kansas in Manhattan. But they do tout a balanced lineup that features players who can score at every position. Kansas State also has depth. Backup guard Angel Rodriguez is just as good as starters Will Spradling and Martavious Irving. And 7-foot center Jordan Henriquez is a solid replacement off the bench for forward Thomas Gipson, who has been one the Big 12’s top freshmen.
Four Kansas State players average double figures in scoring.
Robinson said Kansas State is “more dangerous” without Pullen. His coach agreed.
“I think they are probably more balanced now without Jacob,” Self said. “Usually, when you don’t have a go-to guy like they had in Jacob, it makes it hard to guard because teams don’t just focus in on one guy.”
Earlier this season, a group of Kansas players including Johnson, Releford, Robinson and Taylor drove to Kansas City’s Sprint Center to watch Kansas State play Alabama. Releford’s younger brother, Trevor, is the Crimson Tide’s point guard.
The Jayhawks said they couldn’t help but be impressed with what they saw from Kansas State. The main things that stood out, they said, were the ferocity with which the Wildcats rebounded and played defense --both Martin trademarks.
“This is going to be a man’s game,” Robinson said.
Kansas State’s players know they have to have the same mentality to beat Kansas. Especially at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We’re ready to go,” Martin said. “Does that mean we have a chance to win? I’ve got no idea. But our guys have been good. They’ve answered the bell every time.”