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February 13, 2009Shortly after the "BEAT KU" chants died down at Bramlage Coliseum on Wednesday, Kansas State players finally began looking toward the opponent that had been on fans' minds since a milestone victory a year ago spurred a purple flood across the hardwood. But while a victory over No. 16 Kansas would mark the first time in 26 years the Wildcats took down their rival in Manhattan in consecutive seasons, K-State forward Darren Kent looks at the bigger picture.
K-State would like to go dancing again in March. A victory in Saturday's marquee matchup in the Big 12 Conference certainly would help. Tremendously.
"(Kansas) is an NCAA Tournament team," said Kent, the lone senior on the Wildcats' roster. "If we beat those guys, we're one step closer to being in the tournament and that's where we want to be. To beat a team like Kansas this weekend will be a nice steppingstone for our squad."
It would also catapult the Wildcats into rare air.
An estimated 75 percent of the nation will be plugged-in on ABC as K-State seeks its seventh straight conference win -- something the program hasn't accomplished since 1976-77. Meanwhile, the sold-out crowd of 12,528 has a chance again to prove the arena as one of the toughest venues in college basketball.
Kansas coach Bill Self experienced as much a year ago as K-State downed Kansas, 84-75, giving the Wildcats their first-ever win over their rival in 20 tries at Bramlage and their first series win in Manhattan since 1983.
"The atmosphere in Bramlage last year was unbelievable," Self said. "It was terrific and it will be that good this year. And it should be."
Kansas enters with a score to settle. And in more ways than one.
The Jayhawks look to rebound from a 62-60 loss at Missouri on Monday and haven't lost back-to-back games -- conference or non-conference -- since it lost to K-State and Missouri in 2006. That's a streak of 119 games without consecutive losses.
Kansas, which can't afford any more blemishes on its league record if it hopes to catch leader second-ranked Oklahoma, hasn't lost back-to-back games on the road in Columbia and Manhattan in 27 years.
Self gave his team Tuesday off before practicing on Wednesday and Thursday.
"We just have to keep our composure and not get sped up as much," Kansas freshman guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "We're going to play fast, but we want to play fast and under control. The other day, we didn't play under control at all. If we do that, then we'll be fine."
It marked Kansas' first loss since a 75-62 loss at No. 12 Michigan State on Jan. 10. The Jayhawks wasted little time in bouncing back in their next game.
K-State players remember what happened next.
"You look up and we were down 18-0," sophomore guard Jacob Pullen said. "We just had to claw our way back into it."
The Wildcats' 87-71 loss in Lawrence marked the second of four defeats as they started 0-4 in the league.
Now they have a chance to make a major statement. But second-year coach Frank Martin maintained his same approach before and after the Wildcats' stormed past Texas Tech 85-73 in Wednesday's meeting, which was more lopsided than the final score suggests.
"I can't change my approach game-to-game with the team," Martin said. "Let's say we get lucky and we figure out how to score one more point than (Kansas) does on Saturday. If I change my approach for that game, then what environment am I creating for our team? I'm not as excited for the next team after that? What do you have? A letdown. (Kansas is) the next team on the schedule. They beat us earlier this year."
Martin believes that K-State, currently fourth-place in the league standings, still has a long ways to go, although he has been notably pleased with his team's passion during the winning streak.
"We've got seven games left in the season -- six conference games and one non-conference game," Martin said. "So we're just going to pack the season up and say, 'Hey, we made a heck of a run after being 0-4, we're happy, let's move on?'
"Hey, let's wait and see what happens at the end of the year. Let's see how much we continue to grow, how willingly we continue to expand on who we are. Last year's team went to the NCAA Tournament. Last year's team finished third in this league. That team last year has nothing to do with this year. The only thing it has to do with is that those young kids learned a whole lot and they're better prepared this time around."
The Wildcats know to expect Kansas' best shot on Saturday, although even a K-State win wouldn't guarantee a purple mob on the court this time around. On Friday, Martin instructed students not to rush the court if the Wildcats win.
On the court, however, Kent knows what to expect.
"(Kansas) is going to have a little chip on their shoulder coming off their first loss and knowing that after a loss to Missouri they have to come to another rival's arena," Kent said. "They know it's going to be loud. They know it's going to be crazy. I think they do have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, so we just have to match their energy. We know our crowd is going to be great, so we have that to lean on a little bit. We just have to be ready for a battle. It's going to be a war out there."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Think back to Kansas' 18-0 start against K-State the last time the teams met in Lawrence. Now wad it up and throw it in the trash.
"Those guys are really playing at a high level right now," Self said.
Martin believes the Wildcats' six straight wins won't matter when the teams take the court but the vibes are clearly in the Wildcats' favor.
K-State has held its last five opponents to less than 44 percent shooting and has been relentless in harassing teams with a 78-23 gap in points off of turnovers.
Self remains especially concerned with Denis Clemente in transition. The ability for the Wildcats to remain comfortable in their up-tempo attack will be huge behind balanced scoring from the likes of forward Dominique Sutton, whose athleticism most recently led to him contributing 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting from the floor against the Red Raiders.
"We can use more than one person to guard (Clemente) in transition. That is something that is very important," Self said. "We can make sure that when we shoot the ball, we're not standing. We need to be getting to our assigned spots. There are some things that we can do with any guard to try to slow them down. (North Carolina's) Ty Lawson was a jet too and we did a pretty good job on him. And then there have been other times where we've gone against some speed like that and have done a very poor job.
"So, we're going to have to be very conscious in transition defense, probably more so than we were when we played (K-State) here, because teams usually play a little bit faster at home."
Meanwhile, Kansas leads the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense (38.1 percent), rebound defense (31.6) and rebound margin (plus-7.5). The Jayhawks (50.1 percent) and Sooners (50.8) are the only two league teams to shoot better than 50 percent in the Big 12 season.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE WILDCATS: Interestingly, if it comes down to crunch time, the hottest guy on the floor for either team could be K-State guard Fred Brown. Brown went 14 for 22 (63.6 percent) in the last five games, including big 3-pointers at critical moments. He drilled a 3-pointer with 18.6 seconds left in overtime in a win at No. 11 Texas then effectively clinched the game with a 3-pointer with 43 seconds left to beat Texas A&M. Clemente might receive a bulk of the attention, but Kansas can't sleep on Brown.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE JAYHAWKS: We've gone this long without mentioning Kansas' best player in guard Sherron Collins, who Martin earlier in the week called "the best guard in the league." Collins leads Kansas with 17.6 points, third most in the Big 12. The Bob Cousy Award finalist has a team-high 49 3-pointers and 119 assists. Missouri did a tremendous job in guarding Collins as he finished with just nine points (second most on the team) on 4-for-13 shooting from the floor and missed all four 3-point attempts. Collins wasn't hot against the Tigers, but clearly the ability for the Wildcats to stop the Jayhawks will start in containing the 5-foot-11, 200-pound playmaker in the No. 4 jersey. "There's something about when he sees our color, it's like a bull seeing red," Martin said. "He just plays his rear end off against us."