By Steve Wieberg
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The superlatives keep piling up at Kansas State. Winningest class of seniors. Most victories for a first-year coach. First share of regular-season conference title since disco was king.
How to stamp the Wildcats' season even more indelibly?
The more than century-long rivals square off for the third time this season in today's Big 12 tournament championship game in Kansas City. Kansas is trying to win its ninth title. K-State, making only its second appearance in the final, is hoping to cut the nets for the first time.
"We're conference co-champs," Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said after the Wildcats took out Oklahoma State 68-57 in Friday night's semifinals. "And now, you get a chance to play the team that tied you in the big game."
It's a team - a program - that has tied K-State in knots for nearly two decades. The Wildcats have beaten KU just three times since 1994. It was Kansas that awaited them the only previous time they reached the championship game of the Big 12 tournament, in 2010, and the Jayhawks came away with a 72-64 victory.
Kansas swept two regular-season meetings in the past two months, 59-55 in Manhattan and 83-62 in Lawrence. The latter was an ambush, the once-No. 1-ranked Jayhawks smarting from a rare three-game losing streak and playing at home in Allen Field House. Redshirt freshman Ben McLemore hit six three-pointers en route to a 30-point night. KU pummeled Kansas State on the boards, 41-23. The Jayhawks pulled to an 18-point lead by halftime, and never took their foot off the pedal.
"Our guys really manned up," Kansas coach Bill Self said afterward.
Still, the two teams wound up sharing the league's regular-season title and carrying the top two seeds into the tournament - the Jayhawks No. 1, K-State No. 2
Kansas has rolled through two preliminaries, shooting 59% in defeating Texas Tech and Iowa State by a combined 43 points. The Jayhawks (28-5) remain in the conversation for a top seed in the NCAA tournament, all the more with Duke's loss to Maryland in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Friday night.
At 27-6, Kansas State also is playing for NCAA positioning. Land as high as No. 4 in the seeding, and the Wildcats - like KU - could open in the tournament back in Kansas City's Sprint Center.
They've ridden senior Rodney McGruder into today's game. The 6-4 guard from Washington, D.C., who has combined with versatile guard Martavious Irving and forward Jordan Henriquez to win 101 games the past four years, scored 24 points in an opening win over Texas, then 25 against Oklahoma State.
K-State also has played some stiff defense, holding the Longhorns and Cowboys to 32% shooting and an average of 53 points.
"From the time the ball was thrown up, they brought their hard hats," OSU coach Travis Ford said Friday night. "Kansas State is a good basketball team. They're going to win more games."
Tonight's? Kansas piled up 91 and 88 points in its two tournament tuneups. McLemore remains the Jayhawks' centerpiece, a high NBA lottery pick in waiting who has shot nearly 71% and averaged 17 points and 5.5 rebounds in Kansas City. He's surrounded by four senior starters, and freshman Perry Ellis is coming off a 23-point, six-rebound, no-turnover breakout performance against Iowa State.
Stop that train, finally get over the hump against KU, and Kansas State can make a memorable season historic.