By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – OK, so we can all agree that Kansas is No. 1, the presumptive NCAA Tournament top seed, the big cheese, the top gun, the most interesting team in the world. The Jayhawks are the Big 12 Conference’s regular-season and post-season champions.
So, what does that make Kansas State? It says here, it makes the Wildcats a No. 2 seed when the bracket is announced Sunday. And never mind that KU swept Kansas State in three games this season. All that means is that three of the Wildcats’ seven losses (against a school-record 26 victories) came against the nation’s best team, the team favored to win the national championship.
“Both teams played hard, played with pride and with a lot of respect for each other,” Kansas’ Cole Aldrich said. “They’re such a good team, played us tough three teams, beat some good teams. I’d hate to play ‘em again and there are some other teams that won’t want to play.”
Kansas won its seventh Big 12 Tournament title and improved its record to 32-2 with a 72-64 victory over a Kansas State team that would not go quietly into the K.C. night. The Jayhawks mustered one of its best defensive efforts this season to keep the Wildcats from becoming the fourth No. 2 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the championship game.
Game Three in this rivalry was like the second half of Game Two when the Jayhawks’ defense stifled the Wildcats in Lawrence on March 3. Kansas was able to enjoy the confetti and cut down the nets in the Sprint Center because it played its best 40 minutes of defense this season.
“I’m kind of stubborn in that regard because didn’t play man-to-man the whole game,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We played to the scouting report very well and we competed hard.”
Instead of man or zone, the Jayhawks played a hybrid triangle and two – three players in a zone around the basket, two chasing Kansas State guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, who were a combined 12-of-32 from the field and 4-of-14 on 3-pointers.
Kansas’ defensive effort limited Kansas State to 34.8 percent shooting. Plus, the Wildcats – who lead the nation in free throw attempts – made just 14 trips to the line, making eight. On the other side of the box score, the Jayhawks were 24-of-31 at the line for a 16-point advantage.
“They do a great job of making you shoot over their bigs,” Pullen said. “You get past their guards and get false hope and then their big guys are there challenging your shot.”
Even with their shooting woes, the Wildcats cut it to 40-38 at 13:25 when Clemente made a steal and a score. But over the next 10 minutes, Kansas displayed its depth. Reserve guards Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reed sparked the surge that gave the Jayhawks a sufficient cushion.
Morningstar lobbed to Marcus Morris (18 points, eight rebounds) for a layup then drove and dished to Aldrich for a three-point play and a 45-38 lead at 12:19. Then it was Reed’s turn.
A Reed 3-pointer and then three free throws when he was fouled shooting a three countered two Kansas State mini-runs. Reed’s layup – courtesy of an Aldrich steal to Sherron Collins for the assist – gave Kansas a 64-52 lead with 4:50 remaining.
“I can’t imagine what they go through, they go through warm ups and then sit on the bench, not knowing when they’re gonna play,” said Alrich, who had 10 points and eigh rebounds before fouling out with 35.5 seconds remaining. “They come in and get an open shot and they’re expected to hit it. I have great respect for ‘em and it’s huge what they give us.”
Reed finished with a career-high 15 points and was one of four Kansas players in double figures.
“KU’s the best team in the country,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “Every time we made a push they answered. That’s what makes them so difficult to beat. We’ve got to take this as a tremendous experience, competing with the best team in the country.”
It is anticipated that Kansas will be sent to Oklahoma City for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. If Kansas State is a No. 2 seed, the Wildcats could be joining the Jayhawks in OKC.
“It hurts,” Pullen said of the third loss to Kansas. “But we get a chance to play next week, get a chance to start over and we just gotta win six games. And we're capable of doing it.”
A six-game winning streak during March Madness equals a national championship. Kansas did that in 2008 and hopes to repeat the trick by winning this year’s Final Four is in Indianapolis.
“There’s nothing like cutting the nets down,” Aldrich said. “We’re hoping we can do it in Indianapolis.”
BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
Sherron Collins, Kansas (Most Outstanding Player)
Cole Aldrich, Kansas
Denis Clemente, Kansas State
Jacob Pullen, Kansas State
Donald Sloan, Texas A&M