'Hawks, 'Cats battle for first
By DAVE SKRETTA
Bruce Weber has been in the middle of some intense rivalries during his career.
The coach of No. 11 Kansas State remembers one time, as an assistant on Gene Keady's staff at Purdue, the Boilermakers visited highly-ranked Indiana coached by Bob Knight. Their bus in Bloomington was surrounded by happy Hoosiers, and they needed a police escort to get through.
Before taking over the Wildcats, Weber was the coach of Illinois and went through several knock-down, drag-out fights with Missouri, the Fighting Illini's bitter border rival.
So he knows something about big-time rivalries.
He'll get his first real taste of Kansas State's most heated one Tuesday night.
That's when his Wildcats, at 15-2 and 4-0 in the Big 12, welcome third-ranked Kansas to Bramlage Coliseum. The Jayhawks have won a nation-leading 15 straight games, are 16-1 and also 4-0 in the Big 12, which means first place in the conference will be on the line.
"It's one of the things that is most brought up. There's no doubt about that," Weber said of the simmering rivalry. "I told the guys it's important, but it's important because we're in first place, and they're at No. 2 (in the) RPI. That's why it's really important."
Kansas State isn't far behind in the RPI, a measure used by the NCAA selection committee to help seed teams come March. And that makes this match-up one of the biggest in years.
The last time the teams approached a game of this magnitude at Bramlage Coliseum was in January 2010, when the 11th-ranked Wildcats lost 81-79 to No. 2 Kansas in overtime. They played again that March, and the second-ranked Jayhawks beat the fifth-ranked Wildcats 82-65.
Only two other times since 1958 have both teams been ranked during a regular-season game.
"The thing that really makes a rivalry is when you beat each other, you go back and forth," Weber said. "That's what really makes it a rivalry."
By that definition, the Sunflower Showdown hasn't been much of a rivalry lately.
The Jayhawks, the eight-time and defending Big 12 champions, have won 44 of the last 47 meetings, and they're an unheard-of 22-2 in Bramlage Coliseum since it opened in 1987.
"It's a first-place game in the Big 12, and that's something I haven't played for," said the Wildcats' Will Spradling, a junior from Overland Park, Kan. "Since I was here we've always been in that third and fourth range. Now we're up in first place."
Indeed, Kansas State's eight-game winning streak is its best since winning 10 in a row from November 2009 through January 2010, and they've won 12 straight at home dating to last season.
Expected? Not really.
The Jayhawks, on the other hand, were a unanimous pick to win another Big 12 title. They haven't lost since playing Michigan State in their second game of the season, and they're off to a 16-1 start -- or better -- for the third time in the last four seasons.
All of that was assumed, more or less.
The road to a perfect Big 12 start hasn't been smooth as glass, though. The Jayhawks needed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Ben McLemore to force overtime in a win over Iowa State, and then scuffled offensively in lackluster victories over Texas Tech and Baylor.
On Saturday, they needed to storm back from an 11-point deficit to beat Texas 64-59.
"It was tough, but we have a pretty mature team that continues to grind through," said the Jayhawks' Jeff Withey, who had 14 points and nine rebounds in the win. "We've been in these kinds of situations before, so knew that we would be able to come back."
The Jayhawks, who are averaging just below 62 points in their last three games, are picking a lousy opponent to try to snap out of an offensive funk.
Kansas State has only allowed two of its last six opponents to score more than 60 points.
"We were trying to catch up too fast, and their pressure bothered us," Kansas coach Bill Self said, when asked why his team struggled early in the second half against the Longhorns.
"Then when we settled down, and even though we didn't get an offensive flow, we got to the free-throw line. We did the things that we should do to give us a chance to win on the road."
The same kinds of things that it will take to win another road game Tuesday night.
Kansas State students will be back on campus following their winter break, and some of them will have camped out overnight in frigid temperatures for a front-row seat Tuesday night.
They'll pour into the dimly lit confines of Bramlage Coliseum the minute the doors opening, and spend 90 minutes working themselves into a lather before the ball is thrown up at center court for one of the most eagerly anticipated Sunflower Showdowns in years.
"Everybody's excited knowing that we're playing Kansas at home," said Kansas State's Jordan Henriquez. "Everybody's going to come out. We're winning. We're doing really good things and the eyes are on us right now. I don't think a lot of people predicted us to be 4-0 in conference, so we'll come out and see what Bramlage looks like in the next 48 hours."