Something pretty funny happened inside Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night, something that only seems to happen in the one-and-done, freshman-infused world of college basketball.
Kansas freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden were sitting in front of a collection of microphones and cameras, and everyone wanted to know about Bramlage Coliseum, the doom-filled home of in-state rival Kansas State. In two days, the Jayhawks would be making the trip down Interstate 70 for another round of the Sunflower Showdown, and the question was quite simple: Were the Jayhawks ready for Bramlage?
No matter that Selden and Wiggins have never played in the so-called Octagon of Doom. No matter that they’ve been aware of the rivalry for well, about six months.
“I feel like we go in expecting the worst,” Selden said. “Expecting a hostile environment, expecting to not get any calls, expecting things to not go our way but battling through it.”
If Kansas’ freshmen have limited knowledge of Bramlage Coliseum or the specific geography of Manhattan —How long is this drive going to be again?
— that’s fine with KU coach Bill Self. In the moments after the Jayhawks’ 86-60 demolition of Kansas State on Jan. 11, Wiggins had mentioned KU’s all-time record against K-State:
“What are we, up 186-91 now?” Wiggins asked, a little naiveté in his voice.
Wiggins was one victory off — it’s actually 187-91 — but Self wouldn’t mind if the Jayhawks forgot all about history. The all-time record doesn’t matter, Self says, nor does the fact that the Jayhawks have won 48 of the last 51 against K-State. Same goes for KU’s 28-2 record in Manhattan over the last 30 years, or last month’s 26-point blowout.
“If our guys think that the past score has something to do with (this) game,” Self warned, “then we’ll get beat.”
In the hour after the Jayhawks’ victory over West Virginia on Saturday, the news of K-State’s curb stomping of Texas had filtered through Allen Fieldhouse. Self hadn’t seen the tape yet, but he’d heard the score. So had most of the Jayhawks.
In one sense, it was welcome news. Kansas, 18-5 overall and 9-1 in the Big 12, had opened a two-game lead over Texas in the conference race. If the Jayhawks hold serve at home for the rest of the season, they may just strut to a 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title. Not that Self is ready to admit that publicly.
“The league race is still open,” Self cautioned. “I think everybody has got 10 games left. We’re in a favorable position with a two-game lead. But we go to Manhattan, and if you don’t play well, you’ve got a one-game lead.”
In other ways, though, K-State’s continued dominance of Texas placed Kansas on high alert. It was, after all, just seven days earlier that the Jayhawks had been beaten up by that same Texas team in Austin.
“They’re coming off a hot win (against) a great team in Texas,” KU sophomore forward Jamari Traylor said, “and I’m sure they should be pretty confident.”
In the locker room on Saturday, Self gave his team a quick primer on what awaited in Manhattan. More knowledge would come Sunday, but Traylor has already experienced a night inside Bramlage. It can be deafening and angry, and there’s that traditional blaring of the techno song “Sandstorm” from the loudspeakers. If you haven’t been in the building, there’s no way to simulate an arena full of purple getting lathered up over a song by Finnish DJ Darude.
“Manhattan is pretty loud, and they got probably more crazy fans,” Traylor said. “They’re not shy about what they yell at you.”
Traylor said the Jayhawks’ veterans would try to warn the newcomers, but sometimes it’s just something you need to experience for yourself. In last month’s victory, freshman center Joel Embiid was ejected after hitting K-State’s Nino Williams with a shot to the face in the second half. If the K-State fans have something special planned for Embiid, he didn’t seem overly concerned.
“I don’t really care,” Embiid said. “I’m just going to play basketball and try to get the win.”
Forward Tarik Black added: “We’ve been war-tested. We’ve been tested very well up to this point. It’s very personal. It’s an in-state rivalry and probably will be one of our best games. But at the same time, we’ve been in some pretty hostile situations.”
So here it is, round two. Last month, the Jayhawks overwhelmed K-State with their size inside, and Wiggins held K-State leading scorer Marcus Foster to just three-of-12 shooting. And one month later, Self says, history doesn’t matter.
“We know it will be a totally different game over there with the energy they get from their fans,” Self said. “But it’ll be a great test for our young kids to go over there and see how tough we are.”