Preview: KU angles for revenge in senior-night Sunflower Showdown

photo by: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Kansas's Kevin McCullar Jr. shoots a free throw against Baylor during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 82-74.

After his team lost at Baylor and was officially eliminated from contention for a Big 12 Conference regular season title — not to mention thrust into a less favorable position in the overall league standings — Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. reiterated that his team’s goal “hasn’t changed at all.”

“Just trying to win the next game that we can line up and get ready to compete for,” he said.

The stakes of that competition continue to adjust for KU, which after losing both of its games last week dropped to the No. 12 overall spot in ESPN’s NCAA Tournament bracketology (a No. 3 seed in the East Region), the No. 14 ranking in the AP Top 25 (its lowest in three years) and the No. 6 seed in the Big 12 itself.

“You don’t need to be a 1 seed or a 2 seed to win (the NCAA Tournament),” center Hunter Dickinson said. “I think UConn proved that last year when they were a 4 seed and they just got hot at the right time.”

The Jayhawks are tied with BYU and Texas Tech at 9-7 in league play but have already lost to both of those teams. With the Red Raiders on the road at Oklahoma State on Tuesday and BYU at Iowa State on Wednesday, KU could potentially make up some ground if it beats rival Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse Tuesday at 8 p.m.

The Wildcats have substantially high stakes of their own as they fight for their tournament lives. In a battle of bubble teams that could have positioned them significantly better entering the Big 12 tournament, they trailed Cincinnati by 13 points with 6:51 to go but went on an 18-4 run to take the lead that Tylor Perry capped off with a 3-pointer to make it 72-71.

“To me, Perry almost brought them back, not by himself, but it looked like it was almost by himself against Cincinnati the other day … The little guy can just make hard plays,” KU coach Bill Self said Monday.

However, the Bearcats got their first field goal in more than three minutes when Simas Lukošius arced a long-range shot over David N’Guessan with 10 seconds left, and UC took the win.

After the loss, KSU coach Jerome Tang said the Wildcats — who now sit as the 12th team out of the bracket per ESPN — have “the biggest game of the season” next.

“We still have two top-10 teams that we get to play (KU and ISU),” Tang said. “I said all along you get to nine wins in this league, and you deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament, so everything else is still in front of us.”

So the Wildcats will come in motivated, maybe even more so than in a typical Sunflower Showdown.

“I think that they’re desperate, maybe, but I think that we’re desperate too,” Self said. “They beat us the last time, and we’ve lost two in a row, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t come out and play desperate as well.”

Tang kept his overtime winning streak alive in the Feb. 5 matchup in Manhattan when Perry made two critical buckets in overtime and McCullar missed a key free throw as KSU beat KU 75-70.

Kansas State guard Tylor Perry (2) gets under Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) and Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) for an acrobatic bucket during overtime on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 at Bramlage Coliseum. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas State guard Cam Carter (5) throws a pass out as he is defended by Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) and Kansas guard Johnny Furphy (10) during the second half on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 at Bramlage Coliseum. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang flexes as the Kansas State students sing the Alma Mater following the Wildcats’ 75-70 win over Kansas on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 at Bramlage Coliseum. Photo by Nick Krug

That was the Wildcats’ only victory between Jan. 20 and Feb. 24.

Since conference play began, K-State has had a solid defense, allowing the lowest opponent field goal percentage at 40.1% and 3-point percentage at 28.8%, and has averaged a league-high 26.3 defensive rebounds per game.

But while the offense can score well enough, and certainly has come through in big spots (KSU is 7-0 in overtime this year), it’s been highly disjointed. The Wildcats average nearly two more turnovers per game than the next closest team in the league and are tied with UCF for the worst assist-to-turnover ratio. Perry, Cam Carter and Arthur Kaluma, who have all averaged at least 14 points in league play (Perry’s 16.8 is third in the conference), also average three turnovers apiece.

That group plays some of the most minutes in the league, even more than KU’s heavily used starting trio of Dajuan Harris Jr., KJ Adams and Dickinson.

Those three, together with a newly healthy McCullar and a slumping Johnny Furphy (who struggled last time against K-State), will hope for a better outcome in Allen Fieldhouse than they got in Bramlage Coliseum — or that they got in either game last week.

No. 14 Kansas Jayhawks (21-8, 9-7 Big 12) vs. Kansas State Wildcats (17-12, 7-9 Big 12)

• Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, 8 p.m.

Broadcast: ESPN

Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)

Keep an eye out

Senior sendoff: The effects of the COVID-19 era of college basketball are still on display several seasons later, as Self said on his postgame radio interview following the Baylor loss, “I don’t know who our seniors are yet” ahead of Tuesday’s senior night festivities. With some added time, Self had a clearer understanding Monday: Walk-ons Patrick Cassidy and Michael Jankovich as well as scholarship players Dickinson, Harris, McCullar, Parker Braun and Nick Timberlake will all be honored. He said Cassidy and Harris will not give speeches because they are coming back next year, and McCullar will not because he gave one last year; the other four will speak, as Braun and Timberlake did not give speeches on their senior nights at their previous schools.

Dickinson stressed that just because he’s being honored and giving a speech doesn’t mean he’s not coming back next year: “This doesn’t mean that it’s it for me. It’s more of, if it is it for me, I want to be able to go through with it.”

Self also intends, as usual, to put his seniors in the starting lineup (minus Cassidy because he’s coming back). He said he will choose five from the remaining six depending on health and other considerations.

Jankovich said he will get his first career start and added of those that have wanted him to play more over the years, “Hopefully some of those fans that voiced their opinion will get that support.”

photo by: AP Photo/Justin Rex

Kansas guard Michael Jankovich (20) brings the ball up court against Texas Tech during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Lubbock, Texas.

Center of attention: Braun, who has filled in admirably as KU’s backup center when needed, had a challenging time defending Baylor’s Yves Missi early in Saturday’s matchup and it got worse when he hurt his ankle and sat out the remainder of the game. Self said that Braun’s participation Tuesday would depend on his ability to practice Monday; Braun, for his part, said “A lot can change in 24 hours but we’re trending in the right direction.”

Whether Braun plays or not, a lot of responsibility will be on the shoulders of Dickinson, who after KU lost in Manhattan said he felt like he needed to do more for his team.

“I think in spurts I have,” he said Monday, reflecting on those comments. “I think I can say I’ve probably been a little inconsistent with that. Just trying to be that release for us offensively and then just trying to be more of a presence in the paint defensively.”

Dickinson, who in response to KU’s relatively low AP ranking this week joked that “things just kind of went to crap” upon his arrival, said he took inspiration Monday from a post he read on X comparing the Jayhawks to the Kansas City Chiefs.

“They said how they had a little rough stretch during the regular season,” Dickinson said, “and when it came time, when it mattered the most, they were able to pull off a streak … and a run in the playoffs and now nobody cares about what they did in the regular season.”

photo by: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Kansas’s Hunter Dickinson (1) goes up for a basket against Baylor’s Jalen Bridges during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 82-74.

Off-kilter observation

K-State assistant coach Ulric Maligi coached McCullar for two years under Chris Beard at Texas Tech. Maligi also served as an assistant to former KU coach Larry Brown during his tenure at SMU.


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