Somewhat lost in the fan euphoria that followed Kansas State’s 74-67 victory over Kansas is the fact that the Wildcats sit atop the Big 12 standings at the midway point of the conference season.
K-State (17-5, 7-2 Big 12) is the leader in the clubhouse after winning seven straight league games, and it enters the final stretch of the regular season with legitimate hopes of winning its first championship since 2013.
This is uncharted territory for these Wildcats.
How will they handle it? We will soon find out. For now, though, they seem to understand it’s going to be a grind to the finish.
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“They aren’t going to end the season because we beat KU at home,” K-State guard Barry Brown said. “There are still nine games left in the conference.”
Anything could certainly happen between now and the Big 12 Tournament. Baylor (15-6, 6-2) is surprisingly just a half game back of K-State, and the Wildcats will hit the road to take on the Bears next. Iowa State (18-5, 7-3) is also right there, while Kansas (17-6, 6-4) and Texas Tech (18-5, 6-4) are trying to work their way up from fourth.
The Big 12 race normally comes down to KU and a pair of other contenders. This year, half the conference is in the mix.
That’s what makes the next nine games so fascinating for K-State.
The Wildcats are off to their best start in Big 12 play since they shared the conference title with Kansas in Bruce Weber’s first season. And they have matched their longest Big 12 winning streak since 2010, when they were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight. Things seem to be lining up for them.
Still, K-State can’t afford to take its foot off the throttle. One bad night could be the difference between winning hardware and missing out.
“Long way to go,” Weber said. “I hope it’s not finished. That was my message to the guys after.”
Weber will preach defense and maturity as the season continues. Getting pumped to play Kansas in front of a frenzied crowd is a different challenge than say, surviving an upcoming road swing against Baylor and Texas.
“It’s the team with the most discipline and maturity to get ready for every game,” Weber said. “Somebody texted me and said, ‘Oh, your league is the best. There are eight teams with winning records.’ Last year, we had 10 teams. There is just such great balance. Every game is hard. Can you get ready for the next one? We have got a gauntlet still coming up. It’s not going to get any easier.”
Indeed, K-State’s remaining schedule is difficult. It features road games at Texas, Kansas and TCU, a home game with Iowa State and two games against Baylor.
That won’t be easy, but the Wildcats will need to find a way to navigate it if they hope to remain on top of the Big 12 standings, even after beating the Jayhawks.
“That’s the main goal, but it is not on our mind,” Dean Wade said of a conference championship. “We just have to take it one game at a time. We can’t look that far ahead and lose track of what we are doing. It’s all about preparation. We have got to stay focused and worry about our next game.”