Gameday breakdown: No. 2 Kansas at No. 13 Kansas State
No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks (16-1 overall, 5-0 Big 12) vs. No. 13 Kansas State Wildcats (15-2 overall, 4-1 Big 12)
Time: 6 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023
Location: Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan, Kansas
TV: ESPN | Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network via Learfield
Keys for Kansas
1. Expect pandemonium
The 2nd-ranked Kansas men’s basketball team heads to Manhattan riding a three-game winning streak on its in-state rival’s home floor.
While streaks much longer than that — in KU’s favor — are an important part of the history of this rivalry on the hardwood, it hasn’t exactly been easy to string together a few wins in a row at Bramlage Coliseum during the past 15 years. In fact, the current streak of three in a row on K-State’s home floor ties for KU’s longest since 2008.
And the Wildcats twice have strung together back-to-back wins over the Jayhawks at home.
No matter what the streak has been, how high either team has been ranked or how down in the dumps the Wildcats have been, the game against Kansas has always brought out fire and venom from the K-State fan base. And the Jayhawks are bracing for just that on Tuesday night.
“They’ll be playing with a lot of momentum in the stands,” KU coach Bill Self said Monday.
That momentum usually includes a ton of signage, vicious heckling and a roaring student section that turns Bramlage into a madhouse of head-splitting sound.
Junior forward Jalen Wilson said twice in the past three days that those are the types of games and environments the Jayhawks love to play in and that, with the recent experience at Missouri still fresh in their minds, this team will be ready.
“I think there’s some similarities from an environment standpoint for sure,” Self said. “Missouri was ready when we went there and K-State will obviously be ready for us.”
Added Wilson, who has yet to lose to K-State in six tries: “The fans are there before we even get there and as soon as we walk in they start all the boos and chants. It’s a great atmosphere. This probably will be the best one I’ve seen yet just because of how great (their) season’s going, so I’m looking forward to it.”
2. Dig in on D
With five games of 90 or more points already in their rearview mirror — two of them coming in Big 12 play — it’s clear that the Wildcats can score with anybody.
K-State ranks third in the conference in points per game (78.2) — compared to 76.9 points per game by Kansas — and they’re also the conference’s top free throw shooting team at 74%, partly because they make shots when they get to the line and partially because of how hard they attack to make sure they get there.
“They’re a lot more talented,” Self said when asked to compared this KSU team to last season’s group. “(Their) offensive firepower has doubled. I’m really impressed with their talent level and what the staff was able to do in a short amount of time.”
As for the specifics of their offense, the Wildcats can score in a variety of different ways.
First-year head coach Jerome Tang’s team fields lineups that feature five 3-point shooters on the floor at the same time. Lead guard Markquis Nowell and transfer wing Keyontae Johnson are both athletic, physical and tough and can take over games at any point. And the Wildcats get better than 19% of their points at the free throw line.
Although Self stopped short of saying the Wildcats remind him a lot of Baylor, where Tang spent the past several years as an assistant, he did say the two programs are similar in one key way.
“It’s only been three months for him, but I see more freedom offensively,” Self said of Tang’s current team. “When (Baylor) had guards that could make plays on their own, they let their guards make plays on their own and that’s what (Tang) is obviously doing. I feel like they have even more freedom in Manhattan right now to go make plays.”
While that hasn’t exactly led to K-State being the most efficient offensive team in the country — KenPom.com ranks the Wildcats 37th in that area — it has led to a team that has the potential to catch fire at any time, which Texas and Baylor found out when Tang’s club beat them in back-to-back games earlier this season by scoring 116 in Austin and 97 in overtime in Waco.
“Up until this point, they have been the most impressive team (in) playing well at the hardest places,” Self said. “The win at Texas was incredible and, of course, the win at Baylor was incredible. Nobody’s had two better wins than that in our league.”
3. Who’s mentally tougher?
A lot has been made about the strength and difficulty of the Big 12 Conference, which has six teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, five teams ranked in the top 14 and boasts the 10 teams in all of college basketball with the toughest remaining strength of schedules.
In a conference like that, which Self dubbed “a grinder,” it’s easy to slip if you’re not as sharp mentally as you are physically.
To that end, Self gave the Jayhawks Sunday off entirely in hopes of having them recharge their batteries a bit after last weekend’s draining win over Iowa State.
“We haven’t even practiced yet,” Self said early Monday afternoon. “We were exhausted. We told them to get away from basketball (Sunday). We haven’t even talked about how we’re going to defend this or that yet.”
That means the next 24 hours were going to be spent learning a little bit about a lot regarding the way Kansas State plays and runs its stuff.
“For preparation, it needs to be a crash course and hopefully we’re able to pick up on some stuff,” Self said. “But I actually thought (resting) bodies (was) more important than preparation. And I’d be surprised if Jerome didn’t feel the same way. This league is such a grind.”
KU point guards Dajuan Harris Jr. and Bobby Pettiford vs. K-State guard Markquis Nowell
Just because it’s simple does not mean it’s easy, but the way to stop Kansas State boils down to one thing — finding a way to limit what Nowell is able to do on offense.
In K-State’s loss to Butler earlier this season, Nowell was limited to 13 points, with eight assists and two turnovers, while shooting 1-of-6 from 3-point range. In last Saturday’s loss at TCU, he scored 16 points and also turned it over six times.
Self said Monday that Nowell was having a “player of the year type year” — he’s averaging 17.1 points and 8.5 assists per game (2nd nationally) — and that he was a big fan of the way the undersized but tough as nails K-State guard goes about his business.
He also remembered, correctly, Nowell giving KU “fits” in the first half of last year’s come-from-behind KU win in Manhattan.
“I love him as a player,” Self said. “He’s scrappy and tough and quick and can get his own shot. We’ve got to limit he and Johnson, obviously, from having big nights.”
A lot of that likely falls on Harris and Pettiford, and the timing couldn’t be much better. We know about Harris’ defensive prowess. His reputation as one of the top defenders in the conference and the entire country is well documented.
But Self on Monday praised Pettiford’s defense late in the win over Iowa State, which featured Kansas getting a stop on the final possession to survive 62-60.
“Good gracious, how impressive was he sliding his feet and guarding that last possession,” Self said Monday. “That was something that you show guys on tape and you say, ‘Why don’t we get this all the time?’ Those are the things that he can bring to the table as well as anybody on our team. Better than Juan in certain situations. We’ve got to get more out of him in those situations that don’t necessarily translate to statistics but certainly are winning basketball plays.”
There’s no better time than Tuesday night in Manhattan for Pettiford to do more of that during the minutes he’s on the floor.
Kansas enters this year’s first of two Sunflower Showdowns on a 10-game winning streak and ranked second in the country with 23 first-place votes in the latest AP poll.
The Jayhawks have been red hot of late and they’ve been at their best in close games at game point.
A big part of the reason for that is the experience of players like Wilson and Harris, who both started for last year’s national championship team, and the rest of the roster around them has picked up confidence from and been guided by their leadership.
No player has been a bigger beneficiary of that than sophomore forward KJ Adams, who has been a breakout star for the Jayhawks so far this season, having scored in double figures in 10 consecutive games. Adams earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors this week — his first ever Big 12 weekly award — and this team heads to Manhattan with a ton of confidence, much like that possessed by the team it will be facing.
“They’re capable of playing at a high level against anybody in the country and they’ve already shown they can do it,” Self said of the Wildcats. “It’s a rivalry game regardless if we’re both ranked or not. But it adds a lot more to it when both teams are good, and certainly both teams are good.”
KU leads the all-time series with K-State, 203-94. The Jayhawks have won seven in a row in the series and 15 of the last 16 matchups. Dating back to Feb. 12, 1994, Kansas has won 64 of the 70 battles between the two in-state rivals.
KenPom lists KU as a 2-point favorite in this one, with a win probability of 57%.
No. 2 Kansas
G – Dajuan Harris Jr., 6-1, 175, Jr.
G – Kevin McCullar Jr., 6-6, 210, Sr.
G – Gradey Dick, 6-8, 205, Fr.
F – Jalen Wilson, 6-8, 225, Soph.
F – KJ Adams, 6-7, 225, Soph.
No. 13 Kansas State
G – Markquis Nowell, 5-8, 160, Sr.
G – Cam Carter, 6-3, 190, Soph.
F – Keyontae Johnson, 6-6, 230, Sr.
F – Nae’Qwan Tomlin, 6-10, 210, Jr.
C – Abayomi Iyiola, 6-10, 220, Sr.