For the fifth straight game, Kansas ran out a starting five that had not played in a game for the Jayhawks last season, and this group shouldered a huge responsibility.
Perhaps the most back-to-the-wall game the program has experienced in the Bill Self era opened with four freshmen and transfer Dedric Lawson. The only players who took the floor for KU on Monday against first-place Kansas State who had played for a Big 12 championship team were Mitch Lightfoot and Marcus Garrett.
They did their part, and so did all of the Jayhawks in a 64-49 victory. The outcome tightens the league race, with Kansas improving to 10-5 to the Wildcats’ 11-4. Hard-charging Texas Tech stands at 10-4.
The Jayhawks arrived tied for third place, two games behind the Wildcats. A loss would have all but eliminated Kansas from an opportunity to at least own a piece of a 15th straight conference title.
The game’s importance to Self was demonstrated before six minutes had elapsed. A timeout was taken after the Jayhawks had missed their first seven field-goal attempts, and Self called another one about a minute later. It was as if Kansas hadn’t awakened from the nightmare from Saturday night, a 29-point loss at Texas Tech that was never competitive.
The pauses seemed to work. After Kansas State took an early 10-3 lead, the Jayhawks turned the corner behind the experienced players.
Lightfoot brought an energy burst on both ends and the big man even dropped in a three-pointer. He also defended Dean Wade well and contributed to the Kansas State star’s frustration. Wade fouled out after scoring eight points. Barry Brown, perhaps a top contender for Big 12 player of the year, was held to four. The Kansas defense was outstanding throughout the game.
“I was feeling it, but I was just trying to do what my teammates needed me to do,” Lightfoot said.
Garrett banked in his first three-point try and the below-average perimeter shooter swished another from the corner. He and Lightfoot combined for 14 of the Kansas’ 34 first-half points.
There have been plenty of changes at Kansas this season — no Silvio DeSousa, the season-ending injury to Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick’s absence — but the roster isn’t exactly short on talent. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins took a good-natured jab at the situation last week, joking that Self simply brings another former prep All-America off the bench.
But it is light on championship experience.
Compare that to the Wildcats. No conference championship experience but three seniors and a starting five that delivered one of the most memorable finishes in recent program history last year, advancing to the Elite Eight.
More work remains for Kansas State to win at least a share of its first conference title since tying the Jayhawks in 2013.
“We’re good and we’re in first place,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We have great leadership and that has to be the driving force down the stretch.”
The Wildcats could have blown a hole in the race, but they caught the Jayhawks at a bad place and at a bad time. Kansas remains the only Big 12 team to be undefeated at home this season at 16-0.
And Self improved to 29-0 in Allen Fieldhouse on Big Monday.
The Big 12 remains in play for Kansas.