Blair Kerkhoff

It’s a different Big 12 basketball race with Kansas pursuing first-place Kansas State

Solidifying first place is on the line when Kansas plays host to Kansas State on Monday. Isn’t that always the case?

Yes, but it’s not the Jayhawks looking to strengthen the advantage.

First-place Kansas State (11-3) holds a one-game lead on Texas Tech (10-4) and stands two games ahead of Kansas and Baylor (9-5) in the Big 12 basketball race. Four conference games remain in the regular season for all teams.

If the Wildcats win in Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks’ path to a 15th straight Big 12 championship would require a perfect KU and winless K-State finish, plus help from other teams.

A Kansas victory keeps the race tight, making this encounter the most anticipated and highest-stakes Sunflower Showdowns in recent years.

When the teams finished tied for first in 2013, they had wrapped up their season series on Feb. 11. There was no late-season showdown. They met in the next-to-last game in 2010 as top-five teams, but KU had a two-game lead over the Wildcats entering that contest.

This game brings together teams expected to be ranked, a Big Monday audience and different roles with Kansas in the rare position of pursuing a league leader.

They left contrasting latest impressions from Saturday with the Wildcats toying with Oklahoma State and Kansas losing so badly at Texas Tech that Bill Self altered the way he approached the final minutes.

“We were just trying to get our guys to the finish line so we’d have rested bodies for Monday,” Self said.

It’s an odd series, KU-K-State. Rivalry feelings run deep, but the Jayhawks’ dominance since the early 1980s means the games haven’t often carried relevance beyond the region.

This will be the 19th meeting with both teams ranked and 10 of those were played in the 1950s, when Kansas-Kansas State might have been college basketball’s best rivalry. The teams combined for five Final Fours, four championship games and a NCAA title in that decade.

Other big moments dot the series. Kansas’ victory in the 1988 Midwest Regional final in Pontiac, Mich., became a symbolic separation of the programs, although the KU domination had been underway for a few years.

The teams even experimented with the rules in 1934, when they opened the season with a pair of games played on 12-foot baskets. All field goals counted for three points and the baskets were placed six feet from the baseline. The teams split the games, winning on each other’s floor.

Monday’s game looks evenly matched, or tilted slightly toward the Wildcats, broadening the interest.

In its streak of Big 12 championships, Kansas has outlasted all kinds of opponents. They finished ahead of teams with national players of the year, and teams that were better seeded or advanced farther in the NCAA Tournament.

This Kansas State team, which returned nearly the entire roster from an Elite Eight, is the most veteran in the conference. This will be the fourth trip to Lawrence for some of the K-State seniors.

Until Kansas State broke through with a victory at Bramlage three weeks ago, the Wildcats had played the Jayhawks better in Lawrence than Manhattan over the previous two seasons, but Barry Brown’s contested three pointer fell off to seal KU’s one-point victory last season, and Svi Mykhailuk’s court-length drive and layup, aided by an extra step or two, beat the buzzer in 2017.

Kansas State checked a box earlier this year by scoring its first victory over Kansas since 2015. A regular-season sweep would be the first for the Wildcats since 1983. Since then, the Jayhawks have swept 27 series and the teams have split eight times.

A Wildcats’ triumph Monday would end that trend and create a major obstacle for another one, the remarkable run of Kansas’ first-place finishes.

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