So much of the Sunflower Showdown pre-game chatter has focused on which Kansas University player will guard Kansas State's Michael Beasley, the nation's leading Player of the Year candidate.
In truth, the most meaningful defense played by Kansas tonight will take place elsewhere, before Beasley gets his hands on the ball. As versatile, powerful, and skilled as Beasley is, even he can't score without first putting his hands on the basketball.
Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson rank first and second in the Big 12 in steals, averaging a combined 5.1 per game. Those numbers just hint at their combined defensive value. Just as a shot-blocker alters shots by planting fear that never vanishes, ball-hawking guards sap opposing playmakers of their aggressiveness.
In more ghoulish terms, cut off the head and the body will die.
Beasley's season-low, five-point output was the story line in Kansas State's last loss, 103-77, at Xavier on New Year's Eve, but the problems started in the backcourt, where the Wildcats' guards couldn't contain Xavier's. In 59 minutes, Xavier starters Drew Lavender and C.J. Anderson combined for 35 points.
It sounds so simple. KU's guards will suffocate K-State's guards and the Jayhawks will roll to another easy victory.
Not so fast.
It's extremely difficult to limit Beasley's touches because he's a threat from so many different areas on the floor. It's not as if he just sets up on the block and either is fed the ball or isn't involved in the play. He's a threat to score no matter where he gets the ball because he's so skilled at driving to the hoop, has an accurate pull-back jumper, and hits the offensive boards hard.
Freshman point guard Jacob Pullen, who played just 12 minutes against Xavier, plays a bigger role now. During the current five-game winning streak, Pullen has 20 assists and five turnovers. He knows how to get the ball to Beasley, though doing so with Robinson in his face will be the stiffest challenge he's faced.
The Wildcats have some factors working in their favor as well. Despite a 24-game Manhattan losing streak in the series, K-State does have a homecourt advantage. It was a factor last season, when KU had trouble putting a less-talented Wildcats team away, eventually winning, 71-62. The Jayhawks won the game in Lawrence by 27 points.
What does it all mean?
The streets of Lawrence and Manhattan will be empty tonight, nearly everybody in both towns not holding a ticket making a date with their television sets.
Russell Robinson, KU, vs. Clent Stewart, K-State
Stewart, a 6-foot-4 senior, couldn't hit the side of an on-campus barn at the beginning of the season, but has really heated up lately from long range. He has made 15 of 29 three-pointers in the past nine games.
Game after game throughout the past three seasons, Robinson, a 6-1 senior, has taken opposing point guards out of their games and frustrated them into panicking.
l Journal-World sports editor Tom Keegan breaks down the other matchups in tonight's Sunflower Showdown on page 3B.
Mario Chalmers, KU, vs. Blake Young, K-State
Young, a quick 6-foot-2 senior, is a solid defender but hasn't been the anticipated scoring threat in two seasons at K-State after a strong junior college career.
Chalmers, a 6-1 junior, is above average in every single aspect of the game and leads the team in steals and assists. With the game on the line, there is nobody coach Bill Self would rather have take the big shot.
Brandon Rush, KU, vs. Andrew Gilbert, K-State
Gilbert, a 6-7 junior, is an effective defender and does a decent job on the offensive boards, but has scored in double figures just twice, combining for 38 points in back-to-back games against Rider and Oregon.
In five games since coach Bill Self called him out for not being aggressive enough, 6-6 junior Rush has averaged 15.2 points and 7.4 rebounds. Has made 17 of 30 three-point shots during that stretch.
Darrell Arthur, KU, vs. Bill Walker, K-State
Walker, a 6-foot-6 freshman, has hit half of his three-point shots in the last 10 games, nine of them victories. He's just as big a threat down low, where he uses his bulk and explosiveness. Averaging 15.8 points and 6.6 rebounds.
A major talent, 6-9 sophomore Arthur has a chance to measure himself against a big-time front line. Given a similar opportunity last season against Florida, Arthur responded with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Advantage: Kansas State
Darnell Jackson, KU, vs. Michael Beasley, K-State
Leading candidate for national Player of the Year honors, 6-foot-10 freshman Beasley is an extraordinary rebounder and natural scorer. Ultra-strong lefty shoots well with both hands near the hoop and does a terrific job of drawing fouls.
Jackson, a 6-9 senior, averages 12.8 points and 7.4 rebounds in 24.3 minutes. A year ago, Julian Wright averaged 12 points and 7.8 rebounds in 27.6 minutes. Staying out of foul trouble against Beasley won't be easy.
Advantage: Kansas State
During K-State's current five-game winning streak, freshman point guard Jacob Pullen has 20 assists and four turnovers. Freshman small forward Dominique Sutton, a major talent, doesn't know the offense yet and is scoreless in the past three games. Darren Kent, a 6-10 junior, made 3 of 3 three-pointers in last game.
Sherron Collins had 20 points in last season's KU nine-point victory at Bramlage, but has reached double figures in scoring just twice in the past nine games. Sasha Kaun gives Beasley one more big body in his way on his path to the hoop. Cole Aldrich's playing time could depend on the foul trouble in front of him.