The Kansas State Wildcats are sitting pretty in the Big 12 race, even if it hasn't always been pretty to watch.
That the No. 18-ranked Wildcats find themselves one and a half games ahead of their nearest challengers — two in the loss column — more than halfway through, is as much a testament to their grinder mentality as anything.
"We've just been finding way to win and making tough plays and making stops when we needed," sophomore guard Cartier Diarra said following K-State's hard-fought, come-from-behind 70-63 victory Saturday at Baylor. "And that's just been leading us to success. But it's not over."
It certainly isn't. K-State faces another tough road challenge at 8 p.m. Tuesday when it takes on a rising Texas team at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.
The Wildcats, 18-5 overall and 8-2 in the Big 12, have won eight straight league games, their longest streak in the Big 12 era and the most since the 1974 team won 11 in a row. They finally were rewarded Monday by climbing back into the national rankings at No. 18 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
But Texas (14-10, 6-5) has won three of its last four, beating Kansas and Baylor at home, and last Saturday rolling past West Virginia 75-53 on the road. The Longhorns are receiving votes for the top 25.
K-State has built its conference lead — Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas are tied for second at 7-4 and Baylor is 6-4 — by finding success on the road. After losing 63-57 at Texas Tech to fall to 0-2 in the conference, the Wildcats won at Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and now Baylor.
K-State trailed Baylor 48-41 with 10 minutes left, but outscored the Bears 29-15 the rest of the way, including a 21-5 spurt.
"We had to stand up and be men," K-State coach Bruce Weber said. "You've got to give our guys a little bit of credit for fighting and grinding it out down the stretch."
The Wildcats have relied on defense to carry them through rough patches, allowing just 59.3 points per game. But in the last three outings, they have begun to click offensively, averaging 73 points — an eight-point improvement on their league average.
Senior guard Kamau Stokes led the Wildcats with 20 points at Baylor and Diarra had 10 off the bench to reach double digits for the fourth straight game. Barry Brown still leads the team with a 15.3-point average and Dean Wade adds 14.0 with 6.8 rebounds.
Texas comes in averaging 72.1 points per game and giving up 66.2. The Longhorns have four players averaging double figures offensively, led by senior guard Kerwin Roach with 14.8, while freshman forward Jaxson Hayes adds 10.5, sophomore guard Matt Coleman 10.1 and senior forward Dylan Osetkowski 10.0, plus 8.0 rebounds.
Texas also handed K-State its lone home loss, pulling away late for a 67-47 decision on Jan. 2, though the Wildcats were without both Wade and Stokes in that game.
"We've still got a lot more games left — I believe eight — so a lot of things can change in eight games," Diarra said. "So we've got to stay locked in and focused and now we're going to focus on Texas and get ready for that.
"It's a big road game and they beat us already at home, and coach always stresses don't get swept, so we've got to go over there and handle business."