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Lead on the line in 'Sunflower Showdown'

By ARNE GREEN

Special to The Hays Daily News

LAWRENCE -- Bill Self insisted he's not pushing any panic buttons.

But just in case, he wanted to make certain Kansas' fans were on the same page.

With No. 11-ranked Kansas State, the new Big 12 leader, coming to Allen Fieldhouse at 8 tonight for a Big Monday version of the Sunflower Showdown, the last thing Self wanted was for the home crowd to abandon the suddenly-reeling Jayhawks.

"We need our fans," said Self, whose fifth-ranked Jayhawks' 72-66 loss at Oklahoma on Saturday was their third straight and dropped them a game behind the surging Wildcats atop the league standing. "I am not one to beg very often. I am not begging now.

"I think the crowd will do a great job getting us jacked back up. Big Monday always helps. Playing a rival always helps. I think we'll play with great energy (tonight)."

K-State, which improved to 19-4 overall and 8-2 in the Big 12 on Saturday with a 79-70 victory against Iowa State, has won four straight since losing back-to-back games at home to Kansas (59-55) and at Iowa State (73-67). So are the Wildcats poised for their first victory in Lawrence since a 59-55 decision three coaches ago under Jim Wooldridge on Jan. 14, 2006?

"I don't like answering questions like that because it seems like people always try to amp that Kansas game up more than any other game," said senior guard Rodney McGruder, who leads the Wildcats with 15 points a game. "It's just another game, and I feel like we're prepared.

"We were prepared (for Iowa State), so we're going to be prepared on Monday."

First-year K-State coach Bruce Weber, who succeeded Self as the coach at Illinois in 2003, is convinced KU will be ready as well.

"They're going to be back," he said. "They're good. Bill's a great coach.

"We can't worry about how they're playing. We've got to worry about how we're doing and come ready to play."

The Jayhawks' three-game losing streak is their longest in eight years. They haven't dropped four straight since an eight-game skid in 1988-89.

"Our team has been stung a little bit - 19-4 isn't the worst record we've ever had at this stage," Self said of the current skid that started with an 85-80 home loss to Oklahoma State on Feb. 2 and continued with a stunning 62-55 upset at last-place TCU four days later. "We've had a great year.

"We've had a crappy week, but we can still get it back. If we win (tonight) we'll be tied for the league lead. If not, we'll be looking up and put ourselves in position (where) it'll be very hard to catch up."

Thus the appeal to the fans, who have helped give the Jayhawks a decided home-court advantage. K-State has wilted under the pressure more than once in the recent past, often by falling behind early.

"You can't say, 'Oh, man, we've got Kansas,' and get wrapped up into the rivalry and things like that," McGruder said of his advice to younger teammates that might not yet have had the full-Phog experience. "We have to treat it just like Iowa State, Oklahoma State, anything like that and just tell them the atmosphere is different than any other place.

"Not try to scare them, because you tell them too many things and they might get afraid. Just to keep them mentally ready and prepared to go in there and compete."

In the first meeting, in Manhattan, senior forward Travis Releford led a balanced KU attack with 12 points, followed by 11 each from freshman guard Ben McLemore and 7-foot senior Jeff Withey, who also grabbed 10 rebounds. McLemore leads the Jayhawks with 16.3 points per game, followed by Withey at 13.0.

K-State also has an experienced team, starting seniors McGruder and 6-foot-11 center Jordan Henriquez, juniors Will Spradling and Shane Southwell and sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez. Senior guard Martavious Irving and sophomore post Thomas Gipson have been the most productive reserves.

Weber, while a veteran coach, will make his first visit to Allen Fieldhouse.

"I've watched it on TV," Weber said. "They've won a whole bunch of games there, they've got good teams, (Self is) a great coach and we're going to have to play a really good ballgame to win there,.

"But we've won on the road and we're just going to go after it and see what happens."

Or in the words of Gipson, who had 16 points and seven rebounds against Iowa State: "At the end of the day, they've got to lace 'em up like we do. So we'll be ready."