College Basketball Nation: college hoops 120104

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Pride and in-state bragging rights won’t be the only things motivating Kansas when it opens Big 12 play against Kansas State tonight at Allen Fieldhouse.

“We’ve got something to protect,” forward Thomas Robinson said.

Robinson was referring to the Big 12 title. The Jayhawks have won the last seven of them. Extending the streak to eight won’t be easy for a team that’s as low on talent and depth as it’s been at any time during Bill Self’s tenure.

Still, along with a national player of the year candidate in Robinson, Kansas has something that no other Big 12 team can boast: Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have won 82 of their last 83 games in the historic gym. Year after year, Big 12 teams travel to Lawrence with visions of upsetting KU on its home court. Almost all of them leave feeling dominated.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
AP Photo/Reed HoffmannThomas Robinson and the Jayhawks are focused on starting the Big 12 season the right way.
No one knows that better than Kansas State.

The Wildcats have blossomed into one of the Big 12's top teams and have defeated Kansas twice in Manhattan (in 2008 and 2011) in recent years. But Kansas State hasn’t been able to compete with the Jayhawks in Lawrence, where it has dropped its last five games by an average of 18 points.

Kansas State was embarrassed by 27 points at Allen Fieldhouse during Bob Huggins’ lone season in 2006-07. One year later, NBA draft picks Michael Beasley and Bill Walker were thumped by 14 points by a KU squad that went on to win the NCAA title.

Kansas beat Kansas State by 24 points in Lawrence last season -- just three weeks before losing to Jacob Pullen and the Wildcats in Manhattan by 16.

In some ways this game has been more about the building than the teams.

“There’s three major challenges,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “Bill Self and his coaching staff, their players and the culture they’ve built, and then obviously the 16,000 sitting in the stands just don’t let you communicate with your players. That’s what you face every time you go in there.

“I don’t want to make it sound simplistic, but it is what it is. Their crowd is amazing, and it makes it an incredible challenge for us and everyone that goes in there.”

Kansas will need its crowd more than ever Wednesday. The No. 15 Jayhawks are 10-3 with losses to Kentucky, Duke and Davidson. This is a good team, but certainly not a great one -- at least by Kansas standards.

Point guard Tyshawn Taylor is averaging 3.8 turnovers, shooting guard Elijah Johnson and small forward Travis Releford are talented but inconsistent and there are no high-level backups for Robinson and center Jeff Withey.

If there was ever a time that Kansas was vulnerable, this is it.

Just don’t tell that to the Jayhawks.

“We want to start the conference right,” said Robinson, who averages 17.7 points and 12.2 rebounds. “Now we’re playing for keeps. That’s our conference title. We’ve got seven. We want eight.”

Getting off to a good start in league play won’t be easy against a Kansas State squad that’s 11-1 with convincing wins over then-No. 21 Alabama and Long Beach State, a team Kansas struggled to beat.

The Wildcats no longer have their star guard in Pullen, who scored 38 points in last season’s win over Kansas in Manhattan. But they do tout a balanced lineup that features players who can score at every position. Kansas State also has depth. Backup guard Angel Rodriguez is just as good as starters Will Spradling and Martavious Irving. And 7-foot center Jordan Henriquez is a solid replacement off the bench for forward Thomas Gipson, who has been one the Big 12’s top freshmen.

Four Kansas State players average double figures in scoring.

Robinson said Kansas State is “more dangerous” without Pullen. His coach agreed.

“I think they are probably more balanced now without Jacob,” Self said. “Usually, when you don’t have a go-to guy like they had in Jacob, it makes it hard to guard because teams don’t just focus in on one guy.”

Earlier this season, a group of Kansas players including Johnson, Releford, Robinson and Taylor drove to Kansas City’s Sprint Center to watch Kansas State play Alabama. Releford’s younger brother, Trevor, is the Crimson Tide’s point guard.

The Jayhawks said they couldn’t help but be impressed with what they saw from Kansas State. The main things that stood out, they said, were the ferocity with which the Wildcats rebounded and played defense --both Martin trademarks.

“This is going to be a man’s game,” Robinson said.

Kansas State’s players know they have to have the same mentality to beat Kansas. Especially at Allen Fieldhouse.

“We’re ready to go,” Martin said. “Does that mean we have a chance to win? I’ve got no idea. But our guys have been good. They’ve answered the bell every time.”
Wednesdays are always big nights in college basketball. Here are some predictions for this evening’s games (I’m including my take on Kansas State-Kansas in case you missed it at the bottom of my game preview):

No. 20 Marquette at No. 9 Georgetown

The Golden Eagles bounced back from a home blowout against Vanderbilt by beating Villanova 81-77 on New Year’s Day. Still, Buzz Williams’ team is struggling without 6-foot-11 center Chris Otule. Georgetown was far from impressive in a 49-40 victory over Providence one day earlier. Both teams are very well-coached and are considered contenders for the Big East title. The Hoyas get the nod here, but only because they’re at home. This could be the game of the night.

Prediction: Georgetown 60-57

No. 3 Duke at Temple

The Blue Devils have won their past three games by an average of 32.3 points, but Temple should provide a much stiffer test. Fran Dunphy’s squad has won three straight since a Dec. 17 setback at Texas, but the Owls don’t have enough firepower to upend a Final Four contender.

Prediction: Duke 82-69

Notre Dame at Cincinnati

The Bearcats have gone 6-0 without suspended center Yancy Gates, who will return tonight. The Bearcats have been playing with a four-guard lineup, so it will be interesting to see how they alter their game plan with Gates. Notre Dame is in rebuilding mode and will be hard-pressed to beat Cincinnati on the road.

Prediction: Cincinnati 75-66

Illinois at Northwestern

If John Shurna and the Wildcats want to have any chance of earning the first NCAA tournament bid in school history, they’ve got to win games against similar opponents at home. Stopping Illinois standouts Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson won’t be easy, but I think Northwestern can pull it off.

Prediction: Northwestern 68-67

Iowa at Minnesota

If the surging Hawkeyes can beat a good Wisconsin team in Madison, I’ve got to think they’ll have a chance at Minnesota, which is 0-2 in the Big Ten after road losses against Illinois and Michigan. This would definitely qualify as an upset, but not a huge one.

Prediction: Iowa 72-66

No. 1 Syracuse at Providence

The Friars lost by 24 points against St. John’s and then scored only 40 in a setback at Georgetown. Syracuse should roll.

Prediction: Syracuse 85-66

Wichita State at Evansville

Just two games into the conference season, and the Shockers are already in a difficult position following a home loss to Creighton on New Year’s Eve. They can’t afford a road loss to an Evansville team that upset Northern Iowa on New Year’s Day.

Prediction: Wichita State 74-68

No. 22 Kansas State at No. 15 Kansas

Kansas State has lost its past five games at Allen Fieldhouse by an average of 18 points. Kansas is as vulnerable as it’s been in years, but Kansas State relies on several young players -- namely freshmen Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez -- who have never experienced this kind of environment. The Jayhawks will win tonight but don’t be surprised if the Wildcats return the favor when Kansas visits Manhattan.

Prediction: Kansas 75-63

Upset of the night: Texas Tech over Oklahoma State

Gallagher-Iba Arena is traditionally one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12. But Oklahoma State fans may not be as excited about this season’s team. Two more players -- Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell -- have decided to transfer in recent weeks. Third-leading scorer J.P. Olukemi tore his ACL last weekend and is out for the season, and highly touted freshman Le’Bryan Nash has been a disappointment. Texas Tech is rebuilding under first-year coach Billy Gillispie, who may have the conference’s top freshman in forward Jordan Tolbert.

Prediction: Texas Tech 66-59