Streaks, guarantees, insults and history will matter no more when in-state rivals Kansas State and Kansas finally take the floor together tonight in Manhattan. The second-ranked Jayhawks and No. 22 Wildcats have a score to settle that transcends the usual hype surrounding the Sunflower Showdown, as this time around there are more than bragging rights alone on the line. Whichever team emerges victorious from Bramlage Coliseum today will find itself in sole possession of first place in the Big 12, and the prize hanging in the balance is not one to be taken lightly.
The Jayhawks and Wildcats have not both been ranked heading into a head-to-head meeting since the 1957-58 season, when No. 10 Kansas knocked off No. 1 K-State 61-44 in Manhattan. The fanfare surrounding the most anticipated meeting between the teams in recent history doesn't seem to have wavered the focus of either party, however, and both K-State and its rival to the east are expecting quite a battle.
"This will certainly be the toughest test we've had to date without any question, and it could be as hard of a test as we have all year," Kansas coach Bill Self said of Wednesday's game with the Wildcats. "I do think the atmosphere will be the best we play in all year. They'll be ready for us and excited about it, and our guys hopefully will be prepared and ready. We'll find out a lot more about ourselves from a toughness standpoint and a poise standpoint on Wednesday."
The game will provide ample opportunity for head coach Frank Martin's K-State team to learn about itself as well. The K-State guards, not known for their poise, will be put to the test early and often by an aggressive Jayhawk backcourt, and the Wildcats' ability to stay composed amid tremendous pressure will likely make a humongous difference in the contest's outcome.
KU guards Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson both rank among the nation's top-25 in steals per game this season, and have made a living praying on opposing guards, which have, more often than not, cracked under the high-pressure Kansas press. K-State must do all it can to sidestep such a meltdown Wednesday, however, and every member of the Wildcats' backcourt is familiar with the difficulty of doing so.
"They're quick," said K-State guard Clent Stewart of the Jayhawk guards. "They can get out and get steals. They can take you off your dribble, so we all need to mind out Ps and Qs all game long."
It's no secret that Kansas holds a decisive advantage at the guard positions, but K-State should rule the low post on Wednesday. The forward combination of freshmen Michael Beasley and Bill Walker will present serious match-up problems for the Jayhawks, especially if the Wildcats are successful in forcing Self to use junior Brandon Rush to defend the powerful and explosive Walker, whose ability to take defenders off the dribble could land the KU star in foul trouble.
Don't be surprised to see a shuffled lineup from Martin that does one of two things. Martin will either insert junior forward Darren Kent into the lineup to force that Rush-on-Walker matchup, or he will go to a three-guard lineup that inserts freshman Jacob Pullen into the lineup at point guard and moves senior Stewart into the small forward role.
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