MANHATTAN – Kansas State and Kansas played a whale of a basketball game Monday night at Bramlage Coliseum and it left me completely confused.
It’s not because K-State beat the Jayhawks 70-63. Given KU’s flaws when the Jayhawks are away from Allen Fieldhouse – and they’re apparent for everyone to see – it wasn’t a stretch to think the Wildcats could win.
But as hundreds of Kansas State students rushed the court after the final buzzer, I couldn’t help but think there should have been a lot more exuberant moments for the Wildcats this season. Instead, it’s been a roller-coaster ride of emotions as coach Bruce Weber and his best player, Marcus Foster, have struggled to get on the same page.
Foster did start for the first time in seven games, but his influence was minimal.
The major damage was done by senior center Thomas Gipson, who fought and scrapped the way he promised to fight and scrap, and sophomore guard Nigel Johnson, who scored a career-high 20 points and carved out a spot in the stories that will be told about the Kansas-Kansas State basketball rivalry for years to come.
That’s two in a row now for the Wildcats over Kansas in Manhattan. And this one stings KU badly as its string of 10 consecutive Big 12 titles is threatened. The Jayhawks still have a half-game lead over Iowa State but the Cyclones could move into a tie if they beat Baylor in Ames on Wednesday night.
Then it’s a scramble for the final three conference games.
Some, this scribe included, thought Kansas State had a chance to be in the Big 12 title mix. That didn’t happen.
But the Wildcats looked the part against Kansas.
They played with determination and fight, but if Kansas is the only reason for that then shame on K-State.
Where was that spunk during an embarrassing loss at Texas Tech? Why wasn’t there more gumption in a loss at TCU? Why didn’t K-State show up during a 27-loss at Baylor?
The beleaguered Weber needed something like this, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kansas State (7-9 in the Big 12, 14-15 overall) has been one of the most disappointing teams in college basketball.
You can’t just show up when you’re playing your bitter rival on ESPN’s Big Monday. You have to show up when you play in half-full gyms in front of fans barely paying attention in Lubbock and Fort Worth, too.
Nothing feels better to K-Staters than beating the uppity Jayhawks on the basketball floor. I get it. KU had beaten the Wildcats 23 times in 25 meetings at Bramlage Coliseum before dropping the past two.
But the “what if?” aspect of Kansas State’s season can’t be ignored.
The Wildcats made everyone happy Monday with an impressive wall-to-wall performance, especially considering Foster made only 3 of 13 shots. And if the Wildcats had been a typical 13-15 team playing way above its heads, then by all means rush the floor and go bonkers.
Instead, K-State has been playing below its heads for much of the season with a lack of chemistry and a concern amongst many fans that Weber had lost his team.
That’s not how it looked against Kansas, though. Johnson, in particular, had a night. Oh, what a night. He scored 18 points in the season opener against Southern Utah and had 12 in the next game against UMKC.
Then he went 21 games without reaching double figures.
K-State has struggled for floor leadership from its point guards all season. But when you make 8 of 11 shots and four of five three-pointers, you’ve done some pretty good leading.
Kansas, meanwhile, hasn’t often put it all together this season despite a 22-7 record.
Outside of junior Perry Ellis, who was again outstanding with 24 points and nine rebounds, the Jayhawks are in a strange place. Good, not great with too much susceptibility to dry spells and defensive lapses.
When they needed baskets late in Monday’s game, they couldn’t get them. Instead of utilizing Ellis, the Jayhawks fired up hurried shots and bad three-pointers.
Freshman center Cliff Alexander, who started the season as a potential NBA lottery pick, played 10 minutes and scored no points. Yes, he was in early foul trouble. But Alexander, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds against Oklahoma on Jan. 19 and followed that up with 15 points and nine rebounds against Texas, has scored just 34 points in the past nine games.
Some of the NBA scouts at the game started pounding the keys on their phones when Alexander drew his third foul just 14 seconds into the second half and again when he was whistled for No. 4 with more than 10 minutes to play.
Outside of Ellis, who made 10 of 16 shots, the rest of the Jayhawks were 12 of 40 from the floor and 1 of 13 from the three-point line.
Unlike K-State, the Jayhawks will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. But for how long?