MANHATTAN — Don't look now, but the Big 12 is no longer a three-horse race between Kansas State, Kansas and Texas Tech.
Baylor, K-State's opponent at 7 tonight in Bramlage Coliseum, may be the hottest team in the league heading into the stretch run.
First place again is on the line for No. 16-ranked K-State (21-7, 11-4 Big 12), which shares the league lead with Tech, followed by Baylor (19-9, 10-5) and KU a game back. And nobody has to tell the Wildcats what is at stake.
"I said it to you guys eight, 10 days ago, Baylor was going to be a big game and I knew it would be," K-State coach Bruce Weber said during his Thursday press conference. "They found a way to win (Wednesday) night and they're right in the race, too.
"(The players) know, it's game-by-game, that's all you can do. You've got to get ready for Baylor; that's got to be our immediate focus."
Baylor has won three straight and four of its last five games to climb back in the race, rallying from a 19-point deficit to edge Texas, 84-83, in overtime Wednesday.
"They play very physical, play very hard, (and) they played at a high level," Weber said of the Bears.
K-State, which has been slowed by nagging foot injuries to senior starters Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes, is coming off a 64-49 loss at Kansas that erased its lead over Texas Tech while letting KU and Baylor back into the fray. The Wildcats also are without sixth man Cartier Diarra, whose broken finger is expected to keep him sidelined at least until the Big 12 Tournament.
But the Wildcats also have won five straight against Baylor, including a 70-63 decision three weeks ago in Waco, Texas. The key to that streak is relatively simple, according to Weber.
"We've competed with them toughness-wise, and they had kicked our butt before that," Weber said. "You start looking at the numbers and Baylor, you see zone (defense) and you see this and that, and it's about toughness.
"I said, 'If you guys want to have a chance you've got to stand up and match them.' I thought Kansas took it to us physically a little bit the other night — they were the tougher team — and if we're going to continue the (Baylor) streak we're going to have to match their physicality and intensity."
K-State senior guard Barry Brown, who leads K-State in scoring with 15.3 points a game, insisted that the Wildcats will be focused and ready to rebound from the KU loss.
"We've got a good team coming in, Baylor at home," said Brown, who had just four points on 1 of 8 shooting against the Jayhawks. "We've got to be locked in.
"They didn't have some of their players that they're going to have this next game, so it's going to be a challenge. But we're definitely determined to bounce back and get a win under our belt."
Baylor, which lost starting center Tristan Clark for the year early in league play, also played without starting guards Makai Mason and King McClure in the first meeting. Mason, a senior transfer from Yale who is averaging 14.6 points, has been limited in the last six games with a toe injury, while senior McClure (9.5 points, 5.1 rebounds) returned from a knee injury and played just seven minutes Wednesday against Texas.
"Scott's done a great job," Weber said of Baylor coach Scott Drew. "I've said it more than enough times that he definitely deserves consideration for coach of the year.
"You've got to tweak things a little bit, you've got to change personalities, (and) you've got to do some different things. It's the coaches, but it's also the players accepting and figuring out and going in and changing their roles."