MANHATTAN — Frank Martin didn't need to wait to see where Kansas ends up ranked in today's new set of national polls to describe the challenge that awaits his basketball team tonight inside Bramlage Coliseum.
After suffering a 90-66 loss at Allen Fieldhouse two weeks ago, the Kansas State basketball coach bluntly summed up the difficult test following a narrow defeat at Colorado on Saturday.
"They're the No. 1 team in the country after today," Martin said. "And they're the No. 1 team in our league. I understand Texas is in first place, but no one has beaten them for a conference title in my years here in this league, so they're the best team in our league. Until someone does so, it will stay that way."
Months ago, the Wildcats were hoping a win over the Jayhawks today could give them the inside track to a Big 12 championship, but a disappointing season has changed that outlook. K-State is now viewing tonight's "Big Monday" matchup as an opportunity to get them back on the good side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
At 16-9 overall and 4-6 in conference play, the Wildcats need a late-season surge to earn a repeat invitation to March Madness.
But, as Martin eluded, winning will be no easy task. Senior guard Jacob Pullen isn't afraid to admit he still carries nightmarish memories from K-State's loss at Kansas earlier this season.
"That game, we didn't rebound," Pullen said, "we didn't guard, we didn't handle ball screens at all. We just, really, defensively were atrocious. We really shouldn't have even played defense. We could have stayed on the offensive end and tried to cherry pick and get layups or something.
"Defensively we didn't do anything well. As far as guarding the post and guarding screens, we just gave up open shot after open layup after offensive rebound, and when you play like that you have no chance of winning the game."
K-State was least effective defending inside. Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Thomas Robinson combined for 47 points and 27 rebounds.
Robinson is injured and won't play today, but with Wally Judge leaving the program two weeks ago, the Wildcats will also be down a big man from that first game. Martin thinks K-State will need to play with more energy than usual to take advantage of the situation.
"It's one less 6-foot-9, 240-pound guy they play," Martin said. "They've got a guy named Jeff Withey off the bench, and now he gets an opportunity. It puts Mario Little out there a little bit more. I think Mario is a really good player, unfortunately he's caught up in a situation where they've got a lot of good players."
K-State will try to attack that lineup by thinking back to the one thing that doesn't make them cringe when thinking about that first game with Kansas. Back then the Jayhawks took a 37-20 halftime lead, but the Wildcats shot a putrid 19.4 percent from the field in those opening 20 minutes.
The most bizarre thing about the futile offensive effort was that they got good looks. The ball simply didn't go in. At one point Jamar Samuels dunked the ball more than halfway down the net only to see it come flying out without being touched.
Had some of those shots gone in, well, "it could have been a different game," sophomore swingman Rodney McGruder said.
For that reason, K-State heads into the rematch with some confidence.
"I am eager for another shot," McGruder added.