By late Saturday evening, the questions were already coming.
Bill Self sat in front of a microphone inside the Allen Fieldhouse media room. A collection of Kansas players sauntered through a postgame autograph line outside the locker room. Every few minutes, as another player emerged into view, a small cheer echoed through a concourse hallway.
It was still fewer than 45 minutes after the Jayhawks’ 81-72 victory over TCU, but as Self concluded a postgame news conference, the focus had already shifted to what lay ahead on Monday night.
More specifically: The focus had drifted to one question.
Would the ongoing struggles of Kansas State — on and off the court — have any effect on the next chapter of the Sunflower Showdown?
“I don’t think it matters,” Self said, plainly.
Perhaps Self is correct. Maybe it takes a warped lens to wonder if the Wildcats’ recent nosedive will remove any luster from Monday’s 8 p.m. matchup. Because on the Kansas side of the rivalry, Self says, there is still so much at stake.
“We’re playing K-State and we’ll be pumped for K-State,” Self said. “But the last two weeks of the season, you obviously think about the league race, too. There’s plenty of motivation. You’re playing your in-state rival. You’re playing a team that, obviously, gave us a handful the first time we played them.
“And you’re playing a hungry team I’m sure, because they’re a little wounded right now.”
In other words: Kansas is still in the thick of a legitimate Big 12 title race, just one game ahead of second-place Iowa State. Monday’s game would matter even if the Jayhawks were playing a winless K-State team in the parking lot of the student union.
“I don’t think it matters what they’ve done,” Self said. “I don’t think it matters what we’ve done. I think it will be a great crowd. It’ll be juiced; it’ll be emotional, and certainly we’ll get a great effort from them. And hopefully they’ll get a great effort from us.”
By now, Self says, he has come to expect that Bramlage Coliseum will be among the toughest and most hostile road environments on the schedule. For Self, the top of the list includes Bramlage and Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum, and in recent years, the results have backed up his assumptions. Kansas has dominated the Sunflower Showdown for more than 25 years, winning 49 of 53 in the series. But the results have leveled out in Manhattan, at least in the last seven years. The Jayhawks are 4-3 in their last seven trips to Bramlage, including an overtime loss last season.
“We definitely expect their best,” Kansas forward Perry Ellis said. “As the veterans, we’re going to try to share that with everybody. It’s a tough place to play. We really have to come to play.”
For Kansas, of course, the stakes are easy to put in perspective. With four games remaining in the Big 12, the Jayhawks sit at 11-3 in conference play and need three victories to clinch at least a share of an 11th straight conference title. The formula could change if second-place Iowa State, 10-4, drops another game. But for now, the Jayhawks control their own destiny. And with a victory on Monday, the Jayhawks can finish the job at home with victories over Texas and West Virginia.
So, yes, K-State has lost seven of its last eight while battling a litany of off-court issues. Yes, this is not a marquee matchup — even by Sunflower Showdown standards. But for Kansas, this is still a rivalry game — and still a chance to score a victory inside Bramlage Coliseum.
“You can’t overlook any game in the Big 12,” Kansas freshman guard Devonte’ Graham said. “Everybody is coming to beat you, especially us. Winning the league 10 years in a row, people want to win and they don’t bow down to us.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.