MANHATTAN, Kan. - Ahead awaits potential ambushes. Any road trip to Ames, Stillwater, Norman, Waco and Morgantown could trip Kansas. But for now, the second-ranked Jayhawks are again in position to fulfill what is becoming their manifest destiny.
Two teams entered the Octagon Of Doom Tuesday night. One team emerged in first place in the Big 12 Conference. Kansas, picked in the pre-season to win its ninth consecutive regular-season title, prevailed over No. 11 Kansas State, 59-55. The Jayhawks (17-1, 5-0) have won 16 consecutive games.
That winning streak reflects KU's dominance in this Sunflower State Showdown. Kansas has won 45 of the last 48 games in the rivalry and is 23-2 in Bramlage Coliseum. The Wildcats (15-3, 4-1) are redefining insanity - playing the same in-state rival twice a year and expecting a different result.
"Any time you win over here, we feel very fortunate," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I don't know if we were lucky, but we certainly made some plays when we had to."
After scoring 97 points in an overtime defeat of Iowa State in the Big 12 opener, the Jayhawks have won four games with point totals of 60, 61, 64 and 59. If Kansas is at times offensively challenged, it is defensively blessed.
KU limited Kansas State to 35.1 percent shooting and its second-lowest point total of the season. The Wildcats attempted 57 shots and 30 of those came from 3-point range.
"We obviously relied on the three ball tonight, but it is something that they give you," Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. "That's why Iowa State had a chance to beat them at their place. You have to hit the open ones, and that will make them defend you a little different. We did not do that."
Jeff Withey, the nation's second-leading shot blocker, was not credited with a rejection. But his presence appeared to convince the Wildcats that the best shot came from long range. Seven of their first nine shots came from behind the arc.
"Our game is to not let a team get into the paint, and I think we did a good job of that," said Withey who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. "That is what forced them to shoot a lot of threes."
Senior Travis Releford was the defensive stopper for the Jayhawks. He spent most of the game chasing Kansas State's Rodney McGruder, the Big 12 player of the week. McGruder finished with 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Releford led Kansas with 12 points, making 5 of 6 shots.
"I thought Travis played unbelievable. It was one of the better games he's played for us," Self said. "He was exhausted the second half. He asked to come out. I said no."
In the first eight minutes of the second half, McGruder freed himself to hit three 3-pointers, the last bringing the Wildcats within 45-41. That was the only stretch where McGruder had an impact offensively.
"I'm upset we lost that game. This is the last time I'm going to play them in Bramlage," McGruder said. "But we have a lot of basketball left. This can't be the end of it right here."
For Kansas State, the game unfolded like a hamster on a treadmill. No matter how hard the Wildcats tried, they couldn't make progress.
Kansas took an 18-10 lead on Elijah Johnson's driving layup with 8:46 left in the first half. K-State answered with a 9-0 run. Angel Rodriguez started it with a rate 2 by 15 shot; he scored from two feet over the 7-foot Withey by arching the shot 15 feet in the air. Shane Southwell, who had a career-high 19, capped the run with a 3-pointer to make it 19-18 with 6:23 remaining in the first half.
Self called a timeout and Kansas responded with a 6-0 mini-run that featured two baskets by freshman Perry Ellis.
"They do not get rattled," Weber said of Kansas. "They find ways to win."
Let us count the ways: Senior Kevin Young missed five of six shots. But he followed his own miss and beat the buzzer with a layup to give Kansas a 31-27 halftime lead. In the second, he hustled for an offensive rebound that kept alive a possession that led to a 3-pointer. And in the second half, the Jayhawks' defense was so efficient that they had fouls to give that helped kill the clock as the Wildcats tried to rally.
When Southwell scored off the dribble to make it 48-43 with 8:17 remaining, Kansas State appeared poised to take control. Freshman Ben McLemore, KU's leading scorer, made a 3-pointer and a jumper on consecutive possessions to extend the Jayhawks' lead to 10. McLemore spent the last nine minutes of the first half on the bench with two fouls.
"Those shots were huge,"Releford said. "I told him that once he got in after foul trouble. I just told him to keep his head and keep shooting."
Kansas State must regroup for what figures to be a challenging game at Iowa State Saturday. For Kansas, three of its next five games are on the road. Three of the Jayhawks' five Big 12 victories have come on the road.
"Whenever you can get a win on the road, it is good," Withey said. "It's still early."
Over the next six weeks, we'll find out if it's too late for any team chasing Kansas.