Former Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen could lead a team and project a bracket as well as anybody in college basketball. With his Wildcats in the thick of seeding or bubble scenarios, Pullen enlightened audiences with his updates.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
Today, the Wildcats are part of a different discussion, and Will Spradling said it best last week: Basketball is more fun when your team is fighting for a conference championship and not simply a seed.
Not to dismiss a good seed. Everybody wants one. But schools dont cut nets, hang banners or print commemorative T-shirts championing seeds. And even with a program headed to its fifth NCAA Tournament in six years, K-State has had scant opportunity to think of its basketball goals in other terms.
Few in the Big 12 have because they share space with the nations most dominant program in conference competition.
But the world turned at the top of the Big 12 in an eight-day stretch, and thats why Monday nights Sunflower Showdown drips with intrigue.
The Wildcats bring to Allen Fieldhouse first-place confidence. Saturdays home victory over Iowa State pushed K-States league record to 8-2, one game ahead of the Jayhawks and Oklahoma State. Both Kansas teams stand 19-4 overall.
Until about noon Monday, KU will remain the nations No. 5-ranked team a week after being top-ranked in the coaches poll and the Wildcats are No. 13. By the tipoff, around 8 p.m., the ratings will have changed as dramatically as the Jayhawks season.
Three straight losses have Kansas reeling, and the Wildcats breeze along on a four-game winning streak. During Feb. 2-9, the Jayhawks two-game league lead melted to a one-game deficit.
The KU plunge makes the Big 12 a different place today, one in which the program that has won eight straight Big 12 titles has been brought back to the pack. Teams talk about what it takes to win a title, and thats not unusual in October. In February, it sounds odd coming from somebody not suiting up for Kansas.
Does it feel good? Yeah, Wildcats guard Angel Rodriguez said about first place. But you cant settle. Its a long season.
Sounding just as strange is Kansas convincing itself theres plenty of season remaining.
You dont go from being a good team to a bad team overnight, coach Bill Self said. We had a couple of bad outings, but were still a good team.
Just not a dominant one, which was the appearance for a while in December and the early part of the Big 12 season when the Jayhawks raced to their usual spot atop the conference and gave every appearance of lapping the field.
The home loss to Oklahoma State gave the rest of the conference hope, and the ensuing KU losses to TCU and Oklahoma have thrown the Big 12 race into free-for-all. Eight league games remain, and two games separate the top six teams. If Kansas wins and the Sooners hold serve at home against TCU tonight, all six leaders will have either three or four league losses.
But if the Wildcats emerge with their first victory in Lawrence since Jim Wooldridges final team in 2006, theyll become the Big 12s singular target. Mike Evans was the standout the last time Kansas State won a conference title, in 1977.
And theres this piece of trivia: The Wildcats could join Oklahoma and Texas as the only schools to win Big 12 championships in football and mens basketball in the same school year. The Sooners turned the trick in 2004-05, the Longhorns in 2005-06. In both cases, they shared the basketball title with Kansas.
As even as Monday nights game appears, Kansas holds a trump card. The success against its state rival is one of the most bizarre occurrences in college sports.
With its 59-55 victory in Manhattan last month, the Jayhawks moved to 45-3 against K-State since 1994.
In all of those years, Kansas finished as the higher-ranked team. But the Jayhawks win the lions share of league titles, finish as the highest-ranked conference team in most seasons, and historically have had more trouble with league rivals like Iowa State and Oklahoma State.
The Jayhawks firm grip on the series may have been best illustrated in 2010. K-State, led by Pullen, set a school record with 29 victories and pushed the Cats all the way to the NCAA regional title game.
The Jayhawks and Wildcats met three times that year, and K-State wasnt ranked below 11th nationally in any of the meetings.
Kansas won all three, captured the Big 12 by four games and had everybody else playing only for bracketology once again.
But in one week, the Jayhawks have given more than half of the Big 12 championship dreams. If K-State finds a way to win Monday night, Kansas will find itself closer to a place it hasnt known for years one where it falls back in the conference race and can only wonder about its postseason seed.