KU basketball taking matchup with floundering K-State 'super seriously'
LAWRENCE — Given both ongoing pandemic-related attendance restrictions and Kansas State basketball’s own unsightly season, Bramlage Coliseum won’t be as rocking Wednesday as it typically would be for a Sunflower Showdown.
And that’s A-OK with Kansas junior guard Ochai Agbaji.
“I won’t miss that,” said a smiling Agbaji, speaking Monday in advance of the No. 23-ranked Jayhawks’ 7 p.m. tilt with the Wildcats in Manhattan. “I definitely don’t like playing at a full, packed Bramlage Coliseum. I really don’t like playing there when there (are) fans. Without fans I think it might be a little bit better, won’t get as much hate. But I think the hate will still be there from them.”
Consider it an opportunity, then, for the smattering of K-State fans that are allowed inside “The Octagon of Doom” to redirect toward the visitors any frustrations that to this point have been reserved for a team and a season seemingly off the rails.
The Wildcats (5-17, 1-12 Big 12) will enter Wednesday’s matchup on a 12-game losing streak, their only league win a 74-65 victory against last-place Iowa State on Dec. 15 in Ames, Iowa. Despite that head-to-head outcome, K-State still ranks last in Big 12 play in scoring margin (minus-18.3), a full seven points worse than the second-worst number posted by the Cyclones.
Bruce Weber's squad also ranks last in scoring offense (60.4 points per game), scoring defense (78.6 points allowed per game), field goal percentage (40.4%) and field goal percentage defense (49.6%), among other cellar-dwelling totals posted in conference action.
Despite those less-than-impressive marks, and notwithstanding the three matchups against ranked foes that await the Jayhawks (15-7, 9-5) right after the Sunflower Showdown rematch, KU players are at least publicly saying the right things about the contest versus arguably the Big 12’s biggest have-not.
“All the guys understand there’s no room for error now. We’re taking it super seriously,” said redshirt senior forward Mitch Lightfoot. “This is a tough league and every game means something. This game, it means a lot to our team, even more because it’s a rivalry game.”
KU, which entered Round 1 with K-State as a loser of four out of its previous five games, earned a 74-51 victory over the Wildcats on Feb. 2 in Lawrence. That outcome represented a turning point for the Jayhawks, who enter Wednesday’s matchup as winners of four out of their previous five contests.
“Games against K-State are always going to be turned up and everyone in the game is going to be hyper-focused and they’re going to be locked into the task at hand,” Lightfoot said. “We have to understand that and we have to make sure that we’re all prepared and locked into the scouting report as best we can.”
Scouting this K-State team begins with identifying the three freshmen that the program hopes represent a brighter future. Nijel Pack, Selton Miguel and Davion Bradford have all ascended into starting roles for the Wildcats, with the first-year players producing varying levels of success to date.
“I think they’re all going to be really good players in our league," said KU coach Bill Self. "They’re already on the verge of becoming that."
A 6-foot, 180-pound freshman guard, Pack has for the most part hit the ground running, leading K-State in both points (12.6) and assists (3.5) per game. An Indianapolis native, Pack hit eight 3s on Jan. 30 in a 68-61 defeat at Texas A&M and is shooting an impressive 41.5% from beyond the arc.
Miguel, a 6-4, 210-pound guard out of Luanda, Angola, averages 7.5 points and 2.8 rebounds, while Bradford, a 7-foot, 265-pounder out of St. Louis, contributes 7.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game for Weber’s crew.
“It's hard to play with three freshmen. ... They’re going to be good players,” Self said. “They’re probably a lot like some of the other good ones that have been in their program, whether it’s (Kamau) Stokes or (Barry) Brown or (Dean) Wade or (players) like that. I’m sure they’re hopeful they can become those types of players. They’re off to a good start.”
Not all of Agbaji’s teammates share his enthusiasm for a more low-key edition of the Sunflower Showdown. Lightfoot labeled navigating those, well, sandstorms as “part of playing basketball at Kansas” and added that he considers hostile and emotionally charged road challenges some of the more “fun” memories from his five-year collegiate career.
Under Self, KU teams are 12-5 at Bramlage Coliseum but have outscored the Wildcats by an average margin of just 3.5 points. A 79-56 victory in the 2017-18 season stands as a Self-led team’s largest win in Manhattan, while an 84-68 defeat in the 2010-11 campaign represents the 18th-year head coach’s largest loss at "The Octagon of Doom."
“We’ve had some good ones and we’ve had the court stormed on us multiple times. Obviously Frank (Martin) and Bruce have both had good teams over there,” Self said. “I actually believe the most memorable ones to me that stand out are the ones in which we didn’t win, and so that’s a memory I’d just as soon forget. But there’s been some fun games over there, there’s no question.”
Wilson recognized by Big 12
Jalen Wilson, who scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 64-50 victory against Iowa State last Saturday in Ames, has been named the Big 12 newcomer of the week, the conference announced Monday.
A redshirt freshman forward, Wilson tallied 11 points and 11 rebounds in a 78-66 victory over then-No. 23 Oklahoma State on Feb. 8 in Lawrence, then notched 16 points and 11 rebounds in last Thursday's 97-64 blowout of the Cyclones at Allen Fieldhouse. Wilson has earned a double-double in four straight games.
Self said Wilson is playing “to the level” that he did during his December breakout.
“I’m excited about him. I think he’s playing the right way,” Self said. “He’s rebounding the ball. He’s worried about things that have nothing to do with scoring and therefore he scores more points because he’s not worried about it, shooting the ball better. ... So yeah, we’re pleased with Jalen. We need him to keep contributing at this same type of rate to give us the best chance moving forward.”
NO. 23 KANSAS AT KANSAS STATE
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan
Records: Kansas 15-7, 9-5 Big 12; K-State 5-17, 1-12 Big 12
Line: Kansas by 13
TV/Radio: ESPN+ (online streaming)/Topeka: KWIC-FM (99.3), WIBW-AM (580); Salina: KZUH-FM (92.7), KSAL-AM (1150)
Up next for KU: vs. No. 15 Texas Tech, 1 p.m. Saturday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Up next for K-State: at TCU, 4 p.m. Saturday, Schollmaier Arena, Fort Worth, Texas