Kansas State’s 85-82 overtime victory over Sunflower State rival Kansas on Monday at raucous Bramlage Coliseum was all about toughness.
Not just physical toughness, of which the Wildcats had an ample supply. I’m talking mental toughness.
When the Wildcats gagged away a nine-point lead in the final 1:53 of regulation, all signs pointed to perhaps the most colossal collapse in the history of this lopsided rivalry. This would have been purple pain beyond anything the Wildcats had ever experienced before.
History and momentum were on KU’s side going into the OT, history in the form of having won an astonishing 48 of the last 51 meetings between the schools and momentum from the standpoint that any team that comes from nine down with so little time left should go on to win the game.
Then when KU scored first in the OT, you just started to sense the agony of the Wildcat faithful and the feeling of “here we go again.”
But then the mental toughness aspect kicked in. Kansas State took the ball at the heart of the tissue-soft KU inside defense and scored at will. D.J. Johnson suddenly looked like a guy starving to see more playing time. Without inside enforcers Joel Embiid (bad knees) and Jamari Traylor (missed the game with a suspension, hopefully he’ll learn from letting his team down), the Jayhawks couldn’t protect the rim.
Other than the first basket, the OT belonged to the Wildcats. They were feeding off their frenzied crowd while KU’s strange lineup configuration couldn’t get stops and couldn’t score.
This was a strange game for KU in so many ways. Coach Bill Self elected to go with untested freshmen Brannen Green and Connor Frankamp in crunch time. Maybe he was sending a message to Wayne Selden Jr., who was a ghost with two points in 28 minutes, or to Frank Mason, who seems to sulk more and more every game, playing only six minutes.
Also, Embiid was nowhere to be found in the OT, apparently due to his ailing knees.
As I was watching Kansas State, I had recurring flashbacks to Willis Reed. About every 5 minutes or so, it seemed like a player was suffering an apparent game-ending injury, only to make a miraculous recovery. I thought when precocious freshman guard Marcus Foster went down with an ankle injury (it looked gruesome on the replay) that he was done. Yet, he bounced back and played as though he was daisy-fresh in the OT. Shane Southwell bravely hobbled on a bad foot before being shut down, while the Omari Lawrence leg cramp that ESPN showed a closeup of made me squeamish.
But the Wildcats were too tough mentally to let a few hurts get in the way of their ultimate goal.
Let’s face it, though. This is a good, but not great, Kansas team and that’s not to take anything away from the Wildcats. They were the better team and it would have been a shame had their game slippage at the end of regulation caused them to lose.
KU is a great collection of athletes. Some of them are not great basketball players yet. Andrew Wiggins has been unfairly overly hyped. He is NBA-like at home, but just another player on the road. He did make a big-time play at the end to send the game in overtime, but his 16 points came on 4 of 12 from the field and a hideous 8 of 15 at the foul line. Not exactly the type of game you’d expect from the alleged “next LeBron.”
Perry Ellis did score 19 points and kept KU in the game offensively. But as fast as he scored, he gave the points back on the defensive end. He did play 40 minutes, but at the end he was too tired to defend.
Naadir Tharpe had good numbers (13 points, 10 rebounds), but made some critical turnovers and was nonexistent in the first half.
When Green and Frankamp are playing 15 minutes apiece, that tells me something’s askew.
KU has now lost five games on the road, so this is hardly a surprise and I also look for it to lose in Stillwater and Morgantown. Heck, I even picked the Wildcats to win by 3 in Monday’s column, which proved to be prophetic. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
When you strip away all the McDonald’s honors that don’t carry over to college, there’s really not that much difference between the teams. What Kansas State lacks in talent and size compared to KU, it makes up for in tenacity and intensity.
Hopefully at some point Kansas State fans will believe in their team enough that they won’t storm the court every time the Wildcats beat Kansas, a scene that never plays out at Allen Field House. To me that signals that they don’t expect their team to win and they’re surprised when it does. KSU fans had better get used to it because they’re closing the gap. It’s going to happen more and more in the years to come. Bruce Weber has this train on track and the Wildcats are only going to get better.