LAWRENCE — Kansas coach Bill Self likes Kansas State coach Frank Martin. He's said it often enough during the past few years that it would be stubborn not to believe him.
But, when asked if he felt bad for Martin and his struggling Wildcats entering tonight's game between the rivals in Manhattan, Self drew the line right there. After all, empathy doesn't get a coach very far in college sports.
"I've got my own problems, OK?" Self said. "We've got our own issues we're dealing with. Every coach in America would tell you the same thing. I don't think anybody feels sorry for us when we're 20-1 and get everybody hurt and lose six of our last nine. That's not the way the business works."
The example Self gave, of course, is a hypothetical problem, one that he hasn't had to experience at Kansas. And he hasn't faced the scenario Martin is staring down — beginning the season as the favorite to win the Big 12 and belly-flopping to a 4-6 record in the league — but Self still has problems. Some, like injuries to Josh Selby and most recently Thomas Robinson, are public. Others, Self says, remain private. But there is always something.
No. 2 KU, which could bring a No. 1 ranking to Bramlage Coliseum, has won its last six games by an average of 18.3 points and looks to be fully recovered from its loss to Texas last month. The Jayhawks appear to be a team high on chemistry on and off the court, a squad with a shared mission. But they can remember when their issues were fodder for fans regionally and nationally, just as Kansas State's dirty laundry is now being aired for all to see.
K-State's problems have been "on ESPN a lot," KU guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "I see it, I notice it, people tell us about it. It's hard not to know it. But my name has scrolled down the bottom of ESPN a couple of times, too."
Taylor can have a sense of humor about it now, but, last year as a sophomore, Taylor had to learn some lessons publicly. He was at the center of the embarrassing fights between KU's basketball and football teams in Sept. 2009, posting on his Facebook page that he injured his finger while throwing a punch. Later, in Jan. 2010, he posted something on Facebook that led to speculation he was considering a transfer.
Those certainly were problems for Self and Kansas at the time. But Taylor has kept his name off the ESPN Bottom Line and is putting together a solid junior season.
Martin did not have the chance to turn things around with forward Dominique Sutton, center Freddy Asprilla and forward Wally Judge all leaving the team within the last year. The latest issue popped up last week when news broke that K-State senior forward Curtis Kelly was being investigated by the school for a potential violation of team rules.
"They'll be fine," Taylor said. "They're going through some stuff like most teams do."
KU forward Marcus Morris has more intimate knowledge of what is going on at K-State because he's a friend of K-State guard Jacob Pullen. As starring players at the state's premier programs, they've developed a bond.
"We just compare our coaches," Morris said. "I tell him that Coach Self just doesn't do it as much on the court as Frank does. Frank is just so emotional on the court. Coach Self, he waits until we get behind closed doors."
The doors have been open far too often this season at Kansas State. And on Jan. 29, a national audience tuned in as the Jayhawks waxed K-State 90-66 in Lawrence.
KU's players insist that they are past the point of overlooking anybody.
"They have lost pieces but they're still gonna give us their best shot," Morris said. "Their fans are gonna be juiced. It's gonna be a man's game."
Kansas being No. 1 would only intensify the atmosphere for a K-State team desperate for a signature win.
"When you knock off the No 1 team," Self said, "there's a shot of adrenaline you get nationally from media across America that would definitely breed confidence in their team."