Kansas Off to Good Big 12 Start After Dismantling of K-StatePosted by Taylor Erickson on January 12th, 2014
If you spent the last few days listening to media types in northeast Kansas, Saturday’s rendition of the Sunflower Showdown was supposed to be different. Kansas State entered the game on a 10-game winning streak after stumbling out of the gate. The Wildcats were surging behind a much improved defensive effort, and freshman guard Marcus Foster was making a strong case as one of the best players in the league. Kansas, on the other hand, was a confidence-stricken team that already had four losses on the season. A little less than a week ago, San Diego State had waltzed into Allen Fieldhouse and snapped Kansas’ 68-game non-conference home winning streak. The overwhelming youth and inexperience residing in Lawrence had Bruce Weber believing his team could steal a win against their intrastate rival. Kansas was supposed to be vulnerable.
Instead, what followed in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon mimicked what we’ve seen so often in this Sunflower State rivalry. Kansas jumped out to a 17-point lead off of a 14-assist, zero turnover effort in the first half. The second half featured more of the same, as the Jayhawks outscored Kansas State by nine on their way to and 86-60 victory behind Andrew Wiggins’ 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the floor. The previous five games between these two teams in Lawrence have followed a similar pattern, with Kansas winning by an average of 19 points per game during that span.
This win wasn’t so much about what Kansas State didn’t do, but more of an indication of what Kansas did. For a team with so many expectations heading into the season, the highly touted Jayhawks’ freshmen had left something to be desired. On Wednesday before Kansas’ contest against Oklahoma in Norman, Self got on freshman guard Wayne Selden for failing to be aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. Selden appears to have heard the coach’s message, though, following up Wednesday’s 24-point outburst with a 20-point performance on Saturday against Kansas State. When both Wiggins and Selden are knocking down shots from the outside as well as attacking the basket in the halfcourt and in transition, Kansas becomes extremely difficult to defend. Setting up those outside looks was point guard Naadir Tharpe, who finished the game with a superb nine assists and no turnovers. Tharpe struggled to 1-of-7 shooting on the day, which is perhaps the biggest indictment of the fact that Kansas doesn’t need Tharpe to score to be effective, but instead to act as the type of facilitator who can set up the talented freshmen guards for open looks.
Inside, Kansas looked like a team that had spent a week practicing how to handle a double team in the post after San Diego State stymied the Jayhawks down low. Kansas big men Jamari Traylor and Tarik Black helped break the game open in the first half with an impressive display of interior passing resulting in easy baskets. Freshman center Joel Embiid also showed his range, knocking down a shot from deep early in the first half. The precocious center, however, would be forced to leave the game in the second half after picking up a stupid flagrant two foul when he threw an elbow in the direction of Kansas State forward Nino Williams after a made basket.
Perhaps more importantly than any individual performance in this game is the fact that Kansas as a whole appears to be gaining confidence, the type of swagger that an incredibly difficult non-conference schedule prevented them from compiling the first two months of the season. That renewed confidence will be needed the next week and a half more than ever as Kansas will play consecutive games against the Big 12′s best in Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. The next 10 days will give us a great indication of how the league regular season title will play out, and through one week of conference play, Kansas sits as the lone undefeated team remaining. As Bill Self and company proved again on Saturday, the more things change in this conference, the more they stay the same.