Fri, 01/29/2010 - 18:49 — Kevin McNeill
One of the biggest games of the season, and possibly the best game of the weekend, will take place in one of the most unlikely places - Manhattan, Kansas.
That’s where the ESPN Game Day crew will in all probability witness their largest crowd ever for the show, and where Kansas State will arguably play their most important regular season game in decades, when they face off against in-state rival Kansas.
The game may well have more implications than the one played against the Jayhawks exactly two years ago to the day, when super-frosh Michael Beasley not only guaranteed victory but delivered one for the Wildcats, scoring 25 points. The win snapped a 24 game losing streak at home to their in state rival, dating back to 1983, and handed Kansas their first loss of the season.
That was obviously huge, but a win Saturday could be even bigger for Kansas State. That’s because the #13 ranked Wildcats can actually find themselves right in the thick of the conference race for the final four weeks of the season with a victory, seeking their first ever Big 12 championship (although they won the old Big 8 regular season title several times).
Its hard to believe that it was less than three years ago that Bob Huggins stunned the Kansas State community by announcing he would leave just one year into his tenure to take over at his alma mater, West Virginia. The Wildcat faithful watched in horror as their best recruiting class in history, and subsequently most promising season in a generation, suddenly was in danger of collapsing and following Coach Huggins to Morgantown.
Kansas State acted swiftly to keep their talented freshmen on campus, most notably Bill Walker and Beasley. To that end, they promoted Huggins’ longtime assistant and top recruiter, Frank Martin, to head coach.
The move worked, the freshman class stayed in Manhattan (Walker reportedly threatened to transfer if Martin wasn’t retained), but Wildcat fans openly wondered what it might cost them in the long run. After all, not only was this Martin’s first ever head coaching job at the college level, but his last stint as head coach with Miami Senior High School ended with his termination and the school being stripped of a state championship for recruiting violations. Martin was later cleared of all wrongdoing, but the damage to his reputation remained.
Yet, that season, Coach Martin guided the Wildcats to their first NCAA berth in 12 years, and their first NCAA Tournament victory since the Mitch Richmond era. He followed that up the following season with a surprising 22-win campaign, and a 4th place finish in the Big 12, despite losing four starters - including Beasley.
This season, Martin has them on the brink of another dream season for Wildcat fans, especially if they can defeat the Jayhawks on Saturday.
Kansas comes in on a tear after being shocked by a depleted Tennessee squad three weeks ago. Since the Jayhawks relinquished their #1 ranking they have won five in a row, four of them by double digits, including the last game – the first Border War game against hated Missouri - that was essentially over before halftime.
Now, KU has the top ranking back firmly in their sites after Kentucky’s stunning loss to South Carolina this week.
There is so much at stake. Win, and K-State sits at 5-2 in the Big 12, and would be just one game behind Kansas for first place in the conference. Texas would still be in second place, assuming they defeat Baylor at home, but after the Wildcats upset the then-#1 Longhorns last week, they should own any tiebreaker should they finish the regular season with the same record (they don’t play Texas again).
Conversely, the Jayhawks would make quite a statement as to who should be favored to cut down the nets in Indianapolis should they walk out of Bramlage Coliseum with a victory.
It will be very interesting to see if anyone can slow down Cole Aldrich, who has been an absolute force for the Jayhawks lately, and whether Jacob Pullen is truly over his slump. Another thing to watch for is just how well Kansas State can handle the pressure and atmosphere of such a big game. The Wildcats currently lead the Big 12 in personal fouls, by quite a bit, and also commit 16 turnovers a game, good enough to lead the conference in that dubious category as well.