With the Big 12 introducing an 18-game schedule for the first time in history, conference play begins a week earlier than usual in 2012. In recent years, the week after New Year’s meant tune-up games with low-major opponents, but this season, Big 12 teams won’t have much time to recover from the holidays. Kansas and Kansas State in particular must be in tip-top shape, as the two state rivals will face each other on Wednesday (January 4).
GAME OF THE WEEK
- #23 Kansas State (11-1) at #14 Kansas (10-3), Wednesday 7 PM CT
Kansas State responded from the graduation of Jacob Pullen by ripping through its non-conference schedule, which included wins over Virginia Tech and Alabama, in addition to a Diamond Head Classic championship. The early success has helped Frank Martin‘s team crack the Top 25, but the Wildcats will now face three top-15 teams during the next eight days. It all begins with Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday, marking the first meeting of the season between the two underrated rivals. Kansas State may be overachieving, but the Jayhawks are still finding their way after losing games to Kentucky, Duke and Davidson during the first two months of the season. Bill Self doesn’t have a vintage KU team this season, as it lacks depth and still has not executed all that well offensively. That doesn’t mean these Jayhawks can’t ball, though. They can, especially when Thomas Robinson plays like an animal (30 points and 21 rebounds against North Dakota on Saturday) and Tyshawn Taylor takes care of the basketball. Taylor has heard a lot of criticism for his turnovers, but he may be turning his season around in that department. He led KU to a rout at USC by dishing out nine assists and limiting himself to just two turnovers and he’s averaged just two turnovers per game during the last three contests.
Of course, in those games, Kansas did not face the sort of defense it will see out of Kansas State. Martin’s teams are always defined by their intensity on the defensive end, and this 2011-12 team is no different. The Wildcats are deep, athletic and physical, and forwards Thomas Gipson, Jordan Henriquez and Jamar Samuels can test Robinson on the boards a little better than North Dakota did. Bill Self’s teams will always defend, and despite his relative lack of depth, he has more skilled and proven scorers than KSU with Robinson, Taylor and the emerging Elijah Johnson. But if Rodney McGrudercan play like a star and provide some heroics, his team may hang around at the Phog. The junior guard, who leads his team at 12.5 points per game, scored 28 against Long Beach State during Christmas week to win the Diamond Head Classic.