Oklahoma State guard JamesOn Curry emerged as one of the Big 12 Conference's rising stars last season.
"I thought he'd be a serious candidate for player of the year in the league this year," Kansas University coach Bill Self said of Curry, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound sophomore from Pleasant Grove, N.C. "He will be before he leaves, for sure."
Curry, who scored 14 points off 5-of-12 shooting (three of five threes) in Oklahoma State's 79-70 first-round Big 12 tournament victory over Iowa State on Thursday night, takes a 13.5 scoring, 4.1 assist-per-game average into today's 6 p.m. quarterfinal contest against Kansas at American Airlines Center.
He had 15 points off 5-of-13 shooting in the Jayhawks' 64-49 victory over the Cowboys on Feb. 13 at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla.
Curry has shown flashes of brilliance - like on Thursday, when his 14-footer upped a 70-68 lead to four points with 1:41 left - but has not had the breakthrough season many expected.
"I think it's a big difference going from being the fourth option to the first option and having defenses that were designed to stop Joey Graham, (Ivan) McFarlin and (John) Lucas (last year) all of a sudden designed to stop you," Self said.
Pestered by the opponents' top defenders, Curry has hit just 39.6 percent of his shots, compared to 47.4 percent as a fab freshman.
"I think it's contributed as much to his numbers maybe not being as high as they would," Self said of defenses focusing on Curry. "Still, he's had a good year, maybe not the year some projected. He's a very good player."
He's one the Jayhawks respect.
"When we played them last year, needless to say, we were very impressed with his skill level," KU senior guard Stephen Vinson said of Curry, who hit six of eight shots and had 15 points in a 81-79 loss to KU a year ago at Allen Fieldhouse.
"From what I understand from the scouting report and the first time we played 'em, he is still a great player. He just has not shot very well. If he shoots like he did last year, like he's capable of, he's as good a guard as there is in our league," Vinson added.
The responsiblity of guarding Curry likely will fall to KU stopper Russell Robinson.
"He's a good player on a real tough team," Robinson said. "They played us a close game for 35 minutes. We broke away at the end. It'll be a real challenge. We've got to be ready for it."
Curry breathed a sigh of relief after his shot Thursday helped the Cowboys hold off ISU, which cut an 18-point lead down to two.
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He said the Jayhawks presented a tough test.
"They are a young team like we are," Curry said. "They are very talented, also. We would have won last time if it was a 30-minute game. The only thing we need to address is to play 40 minutes. We've got to play 40 minutes of OSU ball."
Curry's great, but likely will face a tough matchup in Robinson, a player Self calls "the heart and soul of our team."
Robinson has emerged as a steadying force this season after playing so little down the stretch a year ago it was feared he'd transfer, perhaps to St. John's in his hometown of New York City.
"I thought about it. People indirectly suggested it, but nobody flat-out said I should leave," Robinson said of friends back home. "Everybody was saying, 'It's not looking too good.' I've never been one to run from a tough situation."
KU coach Self said at one time, "We thought he might leave. You hear rumors from guys back in New York when he wasn't playing, saying, 'Hey, if you are not gonna play, come back home' stuff. Russell and I talked about it after the season. He wasn't going anywhere, plus his father would have been disappointed in him if he ran from a situation that was created probably by him not doing everything he could potentially do."
Robinson went to work in the offseason on his ball-handling, shooting and conditioning.
"He wasn't going to let anybody beat him out this year," Self said. "No way Russell Robinson was going to go through again what he went through last year. He was too determined."
Robinson, who Self said was "the kind of guy who will shoot on his own and practice on his own and doesn't care if anybody knows it," said indeed he's proud of his strong sophomore season.
"I just think I've been consistent," Robinson said. "I just try to bring consistency every single day whether at practice or in the games."
Kansas University's players arrived via charter at 4 p.m. Thursday. Coach Bill Self watched the OSU-ISU game at American Airlines Center after discovering the game was blacked out at the team hotel, The Fairmont.
"They are playing well. They've been playing well since we played 'em," Self said of OSU, 4-3 under the direction of head coach designate Sean Sutton, who took over for dad, Eddie, the night of the KU game.
"Obviously, they are scoring better than when we played them. We'll be excited, no question," Self added. "We had three of four really good practices this week. Hopefully we'll play well, not like we did on the one bad day."
The Jayhawks will hold a 45-minute shootaround this morning at American Airlines Center.
The Big D: Self says he liked Dallas, but, "I think it (tournament) should be in Kansas City," the coach said of the traditional home of the old Big Eight tournament. "If it can't be in Lawrence, I think it should be in Kansas City. My personal opinion is, Kansas City has to be a site every year or every other year. If not every other year, I'm not opposed to moving it around at all. Dallas is a great venue. Back in the Big Eight days, this tournament was so well supported in Kansas City. I hope after the new arena is built, Kansas City gets its due."
Say what?: The Dallas Morning News on Thursday speculated KU, Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M each still have a shot at playing first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games in Dallas next week.
The paper indicated KU fans might not be eager to travel all the way to Dallas to support the team, however.
"Changes to the Wright Amendment are a blessing for Kansas fans hoping to come to Dallas two straight weeks. But Dallas seems too far away for Jayhawks fans to travel en masse to make a major, vocal difference," the paper wrote.
KU has a huge alumni base in Dallas. In fact, that's one of the reasons the football Jayhawks wanted to play in the Fort Worth Bowl.
Cowboys: Oklahoma State is 7-0 in the Big 12 tournament the past three years. Mario Boggan, a 6-7 junior who hit 58.5 percent of his shots during the regular season, has come on strong lately. He had 21 and 25 points in the final two games of the regular season against Oklahoma and Baylor.
"We'll get a great effort from Oklahoma State," Self said. "We can't let them get comfortable offensively. We can't let their athleticism bother us. Brandon (Rush) had one of his poorest games against Oklahoma State (12 points, nine boards, three steals, four turnovers). If it's a poor game for a guard, it's still pretty good."
Faces to be in crowd: Ex-Jayhawks Keith Langford and Aaron Miles, who play for the Fort Worth Flyers of the National Basketball Association Developmental League, are expected to attend tonight's game.