In the midst of their worst stretch in nearly a decade, the Kansas Jayhawks try to get back on track on Monday night in a marquee matchup against Big 12 Conference rival Kansas State.
Since losing back-to-back games in late January, Kansas State has steadily climbed up the rankings thanks to four straight wins. The Wildcats hosted Iowa State on Saturday and came away with a 79-70 victory, moving to 19-4 overall and they now sit alone atop the Big 12 standings at 8-2.
Following a Jan. 28 victory over West Virginia (61-56), Kansas was 19-1, undefeated in conference, and firmly established as one of the nation's elite teams, but things have gone south in a hurry. The Jayhawks have lost three in a row (their longest losing streak since Feb. 14-19, 2005), dropping a home bout against Oklahoma State (85-80) and a pair of road tests at TCU (62-55) and Oklahoma (72-66).
Over the course of 275 meetings between these two programs, Kansas has a firm handle on the all-time series, 184-91, which includes a 59-55 triumph at Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 22. The Wildcats have won just three of the last 40 matchups against the Jayhawks in league competition.
Kansas State had its hands full against the Big 12's top-ranked offense over the weekend, and Iowa State cashed in with 49.1 percent shooting and 12 3- pointers, but the Wildcats were still able to lead nearly the entire game by outperforming the Cyclones from the floor (.510 field goal percentage) and by winning the turnover battle, 20-14. Rodney McGruder (22 points, five assists, four steals) and Angel Rodriguez (20 points) were the spark plugs in the victory, while Thomas Gipson (16 points, seven rebounds) and Martavious Irving (10 points) were both strong off the bench. The Wildcats' offensive attack has been rather modest by Big 12 standards, putting up 68.8 ppg, but it has been more than good enough to support the league's top-ranked scoring defense (58.3 ppg). The squad also benefits from outstanding rebounding (+5.2) and turnover (+2.7) margins. McGruder is the only player who averages double-digits with 15.0 ppg. Rodriguez shoots just 34.1 percent en route to 9.9 ppg, but he makes up for it with team-highs in assists (4.7 apg) and steals (27).
Kansas trailed Oklahoma nearly the entire game on Saturday, as it was saddled with the six-point loss to an inferior opponent. The Jayhawks shot a respectable 46.3 percent from the field on the afternoon, but they did not help themselves much at the free-throw line (11-of-20), and their bench was outscored by the Sooners' reserves, 23-11. Ben McLemore finished with 15 points, Jeff Withey had 14 points and six rebounds, Elijah Johnson netted 10 points, and Travis Releford tallied eight points and nine boards. Despite not being able to do much of anything right in the month of February, KU is still the most well-rounded team in the Big 12, scoring 73.0 ppg and allowing just 60.5 ppg for a league-best scoring margin of +12.5. McLemore has established himself as one of the best guards in the country, netting 16.3 ppg with outstanding percentages from the floor (.504), 3-point range (.418), and the foul line (.868). Withey posts 13.0 ppg and 8.2 rpg and is one of the nation's premier interior defenders with 4.0 bpg. Releford (11.9 ppg, .599 FG percentage) and Johnson (9.3 ppg, 4.3 apg) are also consistent contributors.