Sunflower Showdown big again
Sunflower Showdown big again
By ARNE GREEN
Special to The Telegram
MANHATTAN — Will the No. 11-ranked Kansas State Wildcats remain on fire and will No. 3 Kansas continue playing with fire and finally get burned?
A hotly-anticipated first edition of the 2013 Sunflower Showdown will provide some answers — as well as a single Big 12 leader — when the two rivals meet at 7 tonight at Bramlage Coliseum.
K-State, 15-2 overall and 4-0 in the Big 12, has won eight straight and continues to improve under first-year coach Bruce Weber. KU (16-1, 4-0) has the nation's longest winning streak at 15 but has rallied for narrow escapes in three of its last five games.
The Jayhawks erased a double-digit deficit Saturday to win at Texas, 64-59, and have a long history of success against K-State at Bramlage with a 23-2 record since the building opened for the 1988-89 season.
But both KSU victories have come in the past five years, the most recent on Feb. 14, 2011, and the Wildcats are riding high after notching their fourth straight league victory (69-61) at home Saturday against Oklahoma.
"Coach always talks about if you're a top 25 team you've got to have a swagger about yourself and I think we have a swagger about ourselves now," said senior guard Rodney McGruder, the Big 12 player of the week after scoring 20 points against the Sooners and 21 the previous game at TCU. "It feels great to be on an eight-game winning streak but it doesn't stop here.
"We've got to prepare for Kansas and may the best team win."
The Jayhawks have had some difficulties in the new year, starting with a hard-fought 69-62 victory over Temple on Jan. 6 and a come-from-behind overtime decision against Iowa State three days later. They trailed last-place Texas by 11 points in the second half Saturday.
"It was tough, but we have a pretty mature team that continues to grind through," said KU center Jeff Withey, who had 14 points and nine rebounds in that game. "We've been in these kinds of situations before, so knew that we would be able to come back."
KU coach Bill Self tried to look at it as a positive.
"One thing it does with your guys, no matter the situation we can still try to figure it out," he said. "It should give you confidence."
Besides, the Jayhawks' four senior starters — point guard Elijah Johnson, wing Travis Releford, forward Kevin Young and Withey — look forward to their last visit to Bramlage.
"Our upperclassmen are excited about being there and going there to play because we know how crazy their fans are and how fun it is playing there," said the 6-foot-6 Releford, who will draw the defensive assignment against McGruder. "It's a big game. We know there's a lot at stake."
In McGruder, K-State has arguably the league's hottest player. He has scored in double figures the last eight games with a 19.5-point average and ranks third in the Big 12 overall at 15.5 points per game.
Kansas is led by freshman sensation Ben McLemore, who ranks second in the league at 16.4 points a game. The Jayhawks also get 13.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.6 blocked shots from Withey, while Releford averages 12.9 points.
Weber, who will experience the Sunflower rivalry for the first time, said he is pushing the league standings over state bragging rights to his players.
"Our goal was to get to 4-0 so that the game would mean even more," he said. "The thing we're trying to emphasize to our guys is this is about first place.
"We're both 4-0 and we've got home court advantage this time, so that's got to be our goal — to protect home court."
Junior Shane Southwell, a 6-7 guard whose switch to the starting power forward spot has coincided with the Wildcats' winning streak, agreed with Weber that the league standings take precedence but that going against a rival makes it more special.
"We're not really concerned with the rivalry, even though it's going to be exciting here," he said. "We just want to win this game and be No. 1 in the Big 12.
"A rivalry game isn't that much good if both teams aren't good. We're just sick of losing to them a lot and we want to come out and play hard, and anything can happen on any given night."
KU definitely has had the better of the series with a 36-3 record against the Wildcats since the start of the Big 12 and won both meetings last year, including a 59-53 decision in Manhattan.
But with the Jayhawks in the top five nationally and K-State on the doorstep of the top 10, it only adds to the excitement.
"I think it's good to have somebody in your league the fans look forward to playing and certainly the players do, and this is that game for us," Self said. "I would much rather play a K-State team that is ranked high than play a K-State team that isn't ranked.
"I think it makes for a better atmosphere, more exposure for both universities, more exposure for our league. Nothing negative can come of it unless we go there and lay an egg, and we've done that before. We have to be very prepared."