Third-ranked Kansas and No. 11 Kansas State meet Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum. So why doesn’t this feel like a bigger game?
The rankings say this is huge.
But if you’ve watched the Jayhawks and Wildcats kind of muddle through the season so far, the expectations are that this is going to be a sluggish, low-scoring, ugly game that will harm the senses.
There are nights when K-State can’t throw it in the ocean and nights when Kansas looks like it would be better off playing on unicycles.
KU has really been fighting it lately, needing overtime to dispatch Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse and looking out of sorts during road wins at Texas Tech and Texas. In the middle of all that, though, was an efficient and one-sided win over Baylor, 61-44, in Lawrence.
But even in that one, KU struggled to score. The Jayhawks are still averaging 76 points per game, but lately it’s been a fight to break into the 70s.
Kansas State, meanwhile, has fought to score from the opening tip of the season. The second best shooter at Kansas State might be one of the students currently in the chem lab because outside of senior Rodney McGruder, the Wildcats don’t have much instant offense.
What both of these teams have, though, is the heart and desire to play defense.
Kansas State ranks 16th nationally in giving up 57.3 points per game. That’s the lowest number of points allowed by a K-State team since 1950-51, when the Jack Gardner-led Wildcats allowed 53.3 points per game.
Kansas, which hasn’t been able to get out of the 60s in four of its past five games, won’t have any easier time tonight against K-State.
But will the Wildcats break 50?
It’s a legitimate question, considering Kansas ranks No. 2 nationally in field-goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot a paltry 34.8 percent from the floor. That’s the best defense a KU team has played since 1957-58. And this from a Kansas team that, in Bill Self’s 10 seasons, has never allowed opponents to shoot better than 39.4 percent for a season.
That’s a remarkable statistic and one that does not bode well tonight for Kansas State, which is scoring at its lowest rate in seven seasons.
Both KU-KSU games last season were methodical and low-scoring. Kansas won both – 67-49 at Allen Fieldhouse and 59-53 at K-State. It’s likely we’ll see more of the same tonight as these two teams slug it out with a last-man-standing attitude.
If there is a decided edge for either of these teams, it belongs to Kansas and free-throw shooting.
The Jayhawks rank 22nd nationally, shooting 74.9 percent from the line. K-State, meanwhile, is shooting a full 10 percentage points less from the line and ranks 281st in the country.
To the Wildcats’ credit, they’ve been finding ways to win. And it mostly involves outstanding defense and some timely offense led by McGruder, who is having an outstanding senior season.
It’s hard to know what to expect Tuesday night, except that what we’ll see probably won’t be pretty.
The fascination of the first Big 12 meeting between Self and the coach who replaced him at Illinois, Bruce Weber, takes a back seat to the intrigue of a game between highly-ranked teams that don’t always play like highly-ranked teams.
Kansas and Kansas State are good basketball team, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that they’re not good in the traditional sense. Neither team has many scorers, but they’re loaded with tough, defense-first players who don’t mind getting dirty.
With that in mind, I’m picking Kansas to win on the road, 58-54. It’s going to be that kind of game.