All signs pointed toward a Kansas State victory on Monday in the “Octagon of Doom” when arch-rival Kansas came to town.
The Wildcats were coming off a stunning road victory at then-No. 2 Baylor, nearly doubling the Bears at one point in the first half before surviving a frantic finish.
They were riding a purple wave of momentum, knowing a victory over No. 3 Kansas would probably cement their spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile Kansas had just seen its armor chinked with its first home loss in four years as Iowa State overcame a 14-point halftime deficit and then outlasted the Jayhawks in overtime for the grueling upset. Back-to-back losses were staring KU in the face.
Kansas State came out like lightning on Monday while the Jayhawks looked as though they were in quicksand as it was 20-8 in the blink of an eye. Frank Mason seemed to have the legs of a 70-year-old man, looking nothing like the player being bandied as perhaps the best in the country.
But after those 8 troubling minutes, the Jayhawks — most notably Mason — found their legs. Methodically, the Jayhawks plodded their way back into the game and by the time it reached half they were in the lead.
Kansas massaged that lead a good deal of the second half, but Kansas State finally went back ahead as the Octagon was exploding and the ESPN crew was making plans for when the Wildcat fans once again rushed the court, as they had done two of three previous years — a sign they really don’t expect their team to beat KU, but revel when it does.
Mason, though, grimly put the Jayhawks on his back. The other ‘Hawks fed off him and KU was able to escape with its 25th win in 29 tries at Bramlage, which has to be a numbing stat for the K-State faithful. How KU can be that successful is stunning, considering the quality of talent the Wildcats have trotted out and there hasn't been that much difference between the teams.
K-State has similar numbers against KU in football, but that's a different story since there are so many more players involved and K-State, after all, has Bill Snyder on its side. The KU program has been bad for the most part while Snyder engineered the greatest turnaround in college football history and the program has sustained over the test of time. The three years between Snyder's two stints, the Jayhawks were 3-0.
I’m guessing Mason went to bed Monday night and probably won’t wake up until Wednesday. It’s been well documented this team has the least depth of any of Bill Self’s teams. The starters have to play draining and excruciating minutes. 38 for Mason, 36 for Svi Mykhailiuk, 36 for DeVonte’ Graham on Monday are physically taxing. Josh Jackson probably would have played that many if not for fouls, while Landen Lucas had to lug his big body up and down the court for 29.
Give Kansas State a ton of credit, it did something that should sway the NCAA Tournament committee to look long and hard at its resume. It now has taken KU down to the wire in both games, as well as defeat Baylor and West Virginia. All the Wildcats probably have to do is play .500 or a little better the rest of the way to secure a berth. They do that and win a first-round Big 12 Tournament game and Bruce Weber can relax about his job security.
I thought the Wildcats’ front court was fabulous. St. John native Dean Wade scored 20 to match his output the first time the teams met. Why Weber didn’t take more advantage of his mismatch made me scratch my head. He was 8 of 12 and KU had no answer.
D.J. Johnson and Wesley Iwundu were solid, combining for 27 points.
Where K-State fell down was its backcourt. Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown hoisted 30 shots — many of Brown’s were questionable in selection — and made only 8. While Mason and Graham didn't have their A-games — Mason still scored 21 points — they still were the driving force. It's not often they combine for 8 turnovers (4 apiece), but they shook off fatigue to easily get the better of the Wildcats' guards, which should be of no surprise to anyone.
I think both teams came out a winner. Kansas is now 1 1/2 games up on Baylor and the Bears have showed some signs of slippage lately. West Virginia is 2 1/2 games back, but still the most likely contender going into the final week in March.
Kansas State, on the other hand, made an impression country-wide that it's not that far behind the Jayhawks and will be tournament-bound after the season.