Kansas was ripe to be beaten.
The Jayhawks were without injured and inspirational player Thomas Robinson, who is out with a knee injury. They were trying to reinsert heralded freshman point guard Josh Selby into the lineup after he had missed the previous three games with a stress reaction in his foot.
And then KU got a No. 1 ranking/No. 1 bull's-eye on Monday, giving rival Kansas State the perfect storm to finally live up to its potential against its bitter rival in a rocking Bramlage Coliseum on Monday night.
Let others use whatever adjectives they choose to describe K-State’s 84-68 victory, but this shouldn’t be considered a stunner. Now the margin of victory (16 points) is certainly a surprise, but that seemed to be more of an indication that the Jayhawks simply weren’t mentally ready for this challenge. Give complete credit to preseason Big 12 player of the year Jacob Pullen for his career-high 38 points, but the Jayhawks’ porous defensive effort left a lot to be desired.
Kansas was tabbed as the No. 1 team on Monday afternoon after Ohio State lost at Wisconsin over the weekend, despite the fact that KU had lost to Texas at home on Jan. 22. In that game against the Longhorns, Kansas was no doubt emotionally fatigued from being up the previous night with Robinson after the tragic death of his mother. Lisa. Since that loss the Jayhawks had been on a magnificent roll from escaping at Colorado, to crushing Kansas State, Texas Tech and Nebraska on the road, and then Missouri and Iowa State at home.
But in the past few days something changed with this team. Maybe it was trying to get Selby back on the court. Maybe it was the timing of getting the top ranking and the opponent. Maybe the Jayhawks were simply ready to get clocked, just like Duke had its forgettable game at St. John’s two weeks ago. Whatever the reason, the Jayhawks clearly weren’t ready to handle the top spot.
Kansas didn’t shoot well from long range (3-of-15), turned the ball over 18 times, and didn’t have composure from beginning to end, exemplified by Elijah Johnson's technical for taunting after a vicious dunk late in the game. KU was down 14 at the time. Taunting doesn’t have a place at any point and certainly makes the team look small if it occurs when it is behind big.
Kansas has given Kansas State new life in its hope to be back in the NCAA tournament after an Elite Eight run last season. The Wildcats, who have five regular-season games remaining, have played a tough schedule and won a few tough games like against Virginia Tech, at Washington State and against Gonzaga in Kansas City. But they also lost several others: to Duke and UNLV in Kansas City, to Florida in Sunrise, Fla., to a whole mess of teams in the Big 12, including a season sweep at the hands of Colorado. The Wildcats entered the KU game 0-7 against the RPI top 50.
The season had been a nightmare at times with Pullen getting suspended for three games for accepting extra benefits, Curtis Kelly being suspended multiple times and Wally Judge quitting.
But now Kansas State has new life. The Wildcats (17-9, 5-6) have three home games remaining and two on the road, including at possible new No. 1 Texas.
But more than giving Kansas State a pulse for a bid, the Jayhawks rekindled the debate as to who should be the top-ranked team, mere hours after this week’s poll was released.
Texas and Pitt are playing the best basketball right now as the Longhorns have won 10 in a row, nine by double figures. Pitt has won 13 of 14, including two in a row on the road (at WVU, at Nova) without leading scorer Ashton Gibbs. The Panthers also beat the Longhorns head-to-head back in November.
Ohio State could certainly be deserving still, losing its first game of the season by four points in an arena where few teams ever win.
Yet, for all the KU warts that were exposed on Monday night in Manhattan, the Jayhawks would still have to fall again at least once more, if not twice, to lose their grip on a No. 1 seed. Kansas will likely be fine.
But for one night, at least, Kansas played a big role in saving the season of its in-state rival.
And for Jayhawks fans, there’s nothing fine about that.