Few college basketball atmospheres are better than Bramlage Coliseum when Kansas is the opponent. Students line up early and alumni cheer passionately. It’s the one day each year K-State fans forget about football and focus exclusively on hoops.
“It’s a game we are always pumped for,” K-State junior guard Barry Brown said. “It’s a game every high schooler dreams of being in.”
The environment was good as ever on Monday, with even pessimistic K-State basketball supporters cramming into the arena to scream their lungs out. Fresh off a four-game winning streak, another victory would vault the Wildcats into a tie for first place in the Big 12 standings. More than that, another win would go a long way toward Bruce Weber winning over his naysayers.
It was all there for the taking, and a frenzied crowd was ready to rush the court and help K-State celebrate if it happened.
Instead, K-State played one of its worst games and lost 70-56.
“It is a big missed opportunity,” Brown said after scoring nine points. “Every loss is a missed opportunity. We had a chance to get in the top of the Big 12. That is a big loss for us right there.”
Where do they go from here?
The Wildcats (16-6, 5-4 Big 12) have lost seven straight to the Jayhawks and are 2-12 against them under Weber, so a loss in the Sunflower Showdown is nothing new.
As they have in previous years, they can recover and earn an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. But they will have to fight to recapture the fan attention they had at home for this game.
The upcoming schedule is difficult. Up next is a road game against No. 15 West Virginia, then it’s off to Texas before returning home for a game against No. 10 Texas Tech. After that, it’s another road game against Oklahoma State.
It’s fair to wonder how many times K-State will be favored during that stretch.
K-State is considered a bubble team. It will need to win some of those games to like its postseason chances before the schedule softens late with home games against Iowa State, Texas and Baylor.
If it plays the way it did throughout most of January, bombarding quality opponents with big games from Dean Wade and Brown, K-State will rally for a winning conference record and salvage a promising season. If it plays the way it did against KU, shooting 32.3 percent, the wheels could fall off.
A day that began with K-State hoping to climb higher than it has since Weber’s first year ended with questions.
“We had an unbelievable three weeks,” Weber said. “We are 5-4 (Big 12) and we overcame a tragedy. We had a really good stretch, we played good basketball and now we have to do it again. We have to start over … The goal is still there, and that is to get to the NCAA Tournament. We have to keep winning and finding ways to win games. Every game is important, so we have to come and play.”
Weber will take heat from fans for saying K-State didn’t spend any time practicing against a zone defense before this loss, but that criticism seems misguided.
K-State has devoted weeks of practice to its zone offense and recently showed its progress in that area during a 90-83 victory last week at Baylor. The Wildcats were so effective against the Bears’ 2-3 zone that coach Scott Drew had no choice but to switch to a man defense.
They have had their struggles against zones in the past, including an ugly 61-54 loss to Tulsa in which they made 31.6 percent of their shots, but they appeared to have moved past them and entered Monday as the Big 12’s top shooting team from the field (50.6 percent) and three-point range (42.6 percent) in conference games.
K-State players simply missed shots at a bad time against Kansas. Outside of Dean Wade, who scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds, no one on the roster had a good game.
Brown, the team’s leading scorer, missed 12 of 16 shots. Xavier Sneed, normally a versatile scorer, went 4 for 12 and missed badly on all but one of his seven three-pointers. Cartier Diarra only attempted four shots.
The calm aggression K-State had played with in previous games disappeared.
Wade needed help, and no one could provide it.
Pressure will be on Sneed to find ways to become more involved in future games. He was arguably K-State’s top player at times during the nonconference season, contributing all over on both ends. Lately, he has resembled a spot-up shooter.
Junior point guard Kamau Stokes was in uniform, but didn’t play on Monday. Weber said Stokes has been medically cleared to take the court and lobbied to play against the Jayhawks, but Weber kept him on the sideline as a precaution.
There’s a chance he will be able to play on Saturday at West Virginia, and K-State could use him.
Diarra has mostly excelled in his absence, and it remains unclear what role Weber will ease Stokes into when he returns. But it’s obvious the Wildcats need another contributor.
Stokes leads the team in assists and is one of the team’s best outside shooters. K-State got nine points from its bench against Kansas and didn’t get anything from it on Saturday against Georgia. Stokes could add a spark, and the Wildcats should welcome him back sooner than later.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett