It doesn’t feel like Kansas has played great basketball this season, yet the Jayhawks are ranked 13-2, ranked No. 9 and are off to a 2-0 start in pursuit of their 11th consecutive Big 12 championship. And, at this point, would you pick against them.
It doesn’t feel like Wichita State has played great basketball for the past three weeks, yet the Shockers are 14-2, ranked No. 13 and are off to a 4-0 start in the Missouri Valley Conference after going 18-0 in the MVC last season. The Shockers are dominating their conference.
And it definitely didn’t feel like Kansas State had any business talking about potentially reaching the NCAA Tournament after stumbling and bumbling to a 7-7 record. But the Wildcats have won two straight in the Big 12, including a huge overtime road victory at Oklahoma on Saturday night, to revive those NCAA hopes.
All three of Kansas’ Division I teams are trending upward – for now. But things can change quickly during conference play. So let’s take a team-by-team look at possibilities.
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Wichita State – The Shockers played a terrible first half at Loyola (Chicago) on Sunday. The way the television announcers were pumping up the Ramblers, I thought I was looking at the 1963, national-championship version. Nope, I wasn’t. WSU tuned things up in the second half and sailed to an easy win against a Loyola team that is improved but still a ways from being in Valley contention.
What an amazing run the Shockers are on in the Valley. Say what you want about the league not being what it has been or should be, but it doesn’t detract from what Wichita State is doing.
It had to encourage WSU coach Gregg Marshall to see point guard Fred VanVleet play so well against Loyola. VanVleet, a preseason All-American, has probably dropped from that status based on a so-so offensive start to his season. But he’s still as valuable a point guard as there is in the country and has stat line Sunday (14 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, three steals) is his best of the season.
If that game is the start of something big for VanVleet, the Shockers could sweep through the conference unbeaten again.
Do I expect 18-0? No, nobody should expect 18-0. But it’s possible, even though the Valley is better this season than it was last. By how much, I’m not sure. Northern Iowa and Evansville look like quality teams, though the Purple Aces have lost to Loyola and Indiana State.
And what to make of Indiana State? The Sycamores, 4-8 in the non-conference portion of their schedule, are 4-0 in the Valley. I credit that to the excellent coaching of Greg Lansing, but count me as one who doesn’t think Indiana State will be a Valley contender much longer.
Kansas – KU is a difficult team to figure. The Jayhawks looked terrible in blowout losses to Kentucky and Temple. But those are their only two losses and any trip to the Big 12 championship this season will have to swing through Lawrence.
This is going to be an interesting week for KU, which is at home against Oklahoma State on Tuesday night and plays at Big 12 co-leader Iowa State on Saturday. The Cyclones will be hosting ESPN’s College GameDay and Hilton Coliseum is always a great – and loud – venue.
Perry Ellis is still Kansas’ leading scorer and rebounder at 12.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg, but it seems like he should be doing more. His shooting percentage is way down from last season and he’s not had many moments of dominance. Sophomore Wayne Selden still battles fits of inconsistency and freshmen Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander are taking time to develop, which is the way it should be.
Oubre has been much better the past month and sophomore point guard Frank Mason is KU’s MVP so far. He’s as tough as they come.
The Jayhawks need to get back-up point guard Devonte Graham back from an injury and see where they stand. So far, they stand atop the Big 12. But it’s early and the Jayhawks look more vulnerable than they have in a while.
Kansas State – Just eight days ago, K-State coach Bruce Weber benched standout sophomore Marcus Foster for a game at Oklahoma State, in which Foster played only 14 minutes and didn’t score.
Gutsy move by Weber, whose credibility with Kansas State fans is still being established.
Foster didn’t start the next game, either, against Texas Tech. But he came off the bench to score 23 points in a tough home win over TCU, then had 14 points in the 66-63 overtime win at OU, easily the biggest surprise so far in Big 12 play.
But Foster still isn’t doing much else but score; he had two combined rebounds and assists in the TCU and OU games and was on the floor just 21 minutes against the Sooners.
What is most encouraging for K-Staters is the play lately of a couple of transfers, Justin Edwards (Maine) and Stephen Hurt (Lipscomb), both of whom were expected to add a bunch to the Wildcats this season. That didn’t happen early, though. Both have been solid of late and combined for 24 points and 17 rebounds against Oklahoma.
K-State has a couple of winnable games this season, against Texas Tech and Baylor at Bramlage Coliseum. There’s been a revial of hope in Manhattan. We’ll see how long it lasts.