Bob Lutz

Preamble to a classic

It's beginning to look a lot like an historic season for those of us who love the orange sphere that goes bounce, bounce, bounce.

I don't want to brag, but the three Division I schools in Kansas are off to pretty nice starts. Kansas is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. Kansas State is 11-1 while taking on all comers and has the country's No. 2 RPI and No. 12 ranking. And Wichita State is 11-1 and moving up the charts faster than a James Cameron movie.

Only there doesn't appear to be a Titanic in this group. These three ships are in calm waters and steaming ahead.

It's interesting to note that while our three Kansas schools boast about their traditions, and deservedly so, there have been only three seasons when the Jayhawks, Wildcats and Shockers all reached or topped 20 wins.

1980-81: WSU 26-7, KU 24-8, KSU 24-9.

1986-87: WSU 22-11, KU 25-11, KSU 20-11.

1987-88: WSU 20-10, KU 27-11, KSU 25-9.

The last was the season, of course, that Danny and the Miracles led Kansas to a national championship.

Unless something unforeseen happens the rest of the way, all should easily top 20 wins.

Wichita State has its full complement of 18 Missouri Valley Conference games to play, plus a Bracket Busters game and the Valley tournament.

Kansas should go right past 30 wins; the Jayhawks have non-conference games remaining with Belmont and Cornell at Allen Fieldhouse, as well as Temple and Tennessee on the road. Then the Jayhawks start Big 12 play.

Kansas State has only two non-conference games to play — at home against Cleveland State and South Dakota — before hitting the Big 12.

It's interesting that with all of the success the three teams have had in the past, there haven't been more seasons when all clicked.

Kansas has topped the 20-win plateau 37 times in its history, including 19 in a row.

Kansas State has reached 20 wins on 21 occasions.

Wichita State has gotten to 20 victories only 11 times.

So how far can these teams go in 2009-10?

Kansas, obviously, is one of the favorites to go all the way. But even with their spotless record, the Jayhawks haven't hit their stride.

It's been difficult for Coach Bill Self to get all of KU's parts working together. And this team has perhaps more quality parts than the Jayhawks' national championship team two seasons ago.

Depth is a quality most coaches yearn for and Self is no different. Well, he's got it with this team. Perhaps too much of it.

I think it has been difficult for Self to mix and match all of KU's talent. Sherron Collins is a senior leader. Cole Aldrich had a monster sophomore season but is not playing as well so far this season.

Freshman forward Xavier Henry is everything he was advertised to be. The Morris twins — Markieff and Marcus — are a lot better and more confident, traits that often go hand in hand.

Tyshawn Taylor, Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar are used to being key players. And freshmen Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson would be getting major minutes on almost any other team. At KU, they're waiting their turn to be impact players.

Not a bad problem to have, obviously. But it helps explain why Kansas, which is outscoring opponents by nearly 30 points per game, hasn't been as overwhelming to watch as that number indicates.

Just wait until these guys figure one another out.

Kansas State has two tough, veteran guards in Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente who know exactly what Frank Martin expects from them and rarely disappoint.

Martin has instilled an attitude at K-State, a team you don't want to mess with. The Wildcats aren't as seasoned up front, but they have depth and athleticism and a ton of room to get better.

Freshman forward Wally Judge understands a little bit more every time he gets on the floor and Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels and Dominique Sutton are unselfish players who think defense first.

Kansas State recently went unscathed through a gauntlet that included Washington State, Xavier, UNLV and Alabama. None are great teams, at least not yet. But all are good teams that could show up in the NCAA Tournament.

It's not a matter of whether K-State will be playing meaningful basketball in mid-March. It's a matter of how far the Cats will be capable of going. A Sweet 16 run seems reasonable. Maybe more. Know this: Any team that doesn't have to deal with Kansas State is lucky.

Meanwhile, Wichita State has come the farthest the fastest.

The Shockers weren't supposed to be a Missouri Valley Conference contender this season. Now it's difficult to imagine they won't be.

Like Martin, WSU coach Gregg Marshall has molded a team to fit his personality. The Shockers are rugged and resilient and, unlike Marshall's first two teams, can score.

Wichita State had trouble breaking 60 points even last season, when it was 17-17 and played its best basketball late in the season.

Now, with six or seven players who can score, it's not unusual for the Shockers to break 80.

The state's Big Three are 33-2 and we're not even to January. None of this is a fluke. We've always bragged about how well we hoop it up in Kansas. But this season, we're surprising even ourselves.

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