Kansas State University’s No. 11-ranked basketball team carries a healthy dose of confidence into tonight’s showdown against No. 3-rated Kansas.
“Coach (Bruce Weber) always talks about, if you’re a Top-25 team, you’ve got to have a swagger about yourself, and I think we have a swagger about ourselves now,” said KSU senior guard Rodney McGruder, a preseason all-conference pick who is third in the league in scoring at 15.5 points per game.
“It feels great to be on an eight-game winning streak, but it doesn’t stop here. We’ve got to prepare for Kansas, and may the best team win.”
Sharpshooter McGruder and the Wildcats (15-2 overall, 4-0 Big 12) enter today’s 7 p.m. game in Bramlage Coliseum as one of the country’s hottest teams and, like rival KU (16-1, 4-0), the only remaining unbeaten teams in Big 12 play.
“The thing we are trying to emphasize to our guys is this is about first place,” said Weber, in his first year at K-State after nine seasons as Bill Self’s successor at University of Illinois. “At this point in the season, there’s a long way to go, but we are both 4-0. We’ve got homecourt advantage the first time around. That has to be our goal, to protect homecourt.
“It will be a big challenge. Hopefully we’ll be up to the task,” added Weber, whose Wildcats have been unstoppable since defeating No. 8 Florida, 67-61, on Dec. 22 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
They are 4-0 in the Big 12 (wins at West Virginia and TCU and against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma) for the second time since the league’s inception in 1997 and the first time since the 2007-08 team opened 5-0. KSU is 10-0 at Bramlage this season, an arena in which the Jayhawks have won 22 games and lost just two throughout history.
“He’s right. Unless we tie, the winner will be 5-0 and loser 4-1,” KU coach Self said with a smile. “The thing with the league race ... I learned this over the years ... four games into an 18-game schedule is very, very early. So much is who you played and where you played them. They are off to a good start. It is for first place 30 percent of the way in. It’s not for first place obviously when we’re getting into deep February.”
Self is wary of the Wildcats, especially McGruder, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound senior from Washington, D.C., who averages 15.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a game and is sixth in the league in field-goal percentage (44.3). He’s ninth in three-point percentage, having hit 26 of 75 threes for 34.7 percent.
“He’s one of my favorite players in the league,” Self said of McGruder, who is 1-6 versus the Jayhawks in his career. “He’s a nice young man. I respect his game a lot. He is on a roll right now. He can get you 25, 30 (points) any night.”
Self was asked about the battle of McGruder and his own Ben McLemore, the second-leading scorer in the league at 16.4 ppg.
“I don’t know who will be matched up on who. I’d say Rodney is a far more mature player as far as understanding how to move without the ball,” Self said. “The (motion) offense they are running now has really benefited him at least as far as from the outside looking in. He’s grown (through the years) on how to read screens, how to set people up, how to be in constant motion. Of course, Ben is an athlete who doesn’t come around every year. He’s a special athlete, no question. Both teams need those guys to play well. Ben will have to do a great job moving without the ball like McGruder does.”
Both McLemore and Travis Releford, who figure to spend some time guarding McGruder, worked camps with the KSU standout last summer.
“He’s a great player. His personality is great, too,” McLemore said. “He’s an outstanding player in the Big 12. It’ll be a great challenge playing against him.”
Noted fifth-year senior Releford: “I’ve been guarding him since I’ve been here, since he’s been in school. It’s going to be a tough match-up. He’s gotten a lot better on offense. He’s looking to score on offense. It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The key, Releford said, is “just make him uncomfortable. That’s with any player. If they are uncomfortable, it’s going to be tough for any of them to make shots.”
Weber, who replaced Frank Martin in Manhattan, said the best thing about McGruder is “he’s a great individual, such a good person, somebody you want to have as a friend, teammate. It’s not easy to get a new coach, somebody telling you, ‘Hey we’ve got to tweak this, change this.’ He’s been very receptive to it. It took a little bit of time. He’s worked through some of the tough spots and continued to get better and really started to play with a lot of confidence here the last two to three weeks.”
He’s KSU’s only double-digit scorer. Guards Angel Rodriguez, Will Spradling and Shane Southwell average 9.2, 8.6 and 7.4 ppg.
“They don’t beat themselves,” Self said. “They play great defense, are well coached. Their motion ... if you are not sound defensively, they can make you look bad. They are a real sound team.”
And they have a huge homecourt advantage when KU comes to town. The Jayhawks have quieted some incredibly loud KSU crowds in Bramlage in the past.
“I’ve been in some great environments. I think Bramlage is as tough a place as we’ve played. Two or three times we’ve been over there, it’s been as good as I’ve ever seen. I’m sure it’ll be that way again tomorrow,” said Self, who listed Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State as some other really loud venues he’s visited in his career. “We’ll have to do a good job preparing our young kids who haven’t been over there. I’m sure our veterans will talk to them about it. Their students are right on top of you and do a good job of being on top of everything.”
Self was asked if KU-KSU has grown in importance now that Missouri is off the schedule
“I think so,” he said. “K-State has always been the rival (where) it was more a respect rivalry than what Missouri was, because I think on both sides of the Missouri rivalry there was a lot of hatred involved. We obviously didn’t like them, and the feeling was very mutual. I never felt that way with K-State. I don’t know why. I never did. I think this will turn a little bit to become more heated as we move forward because we don’t have the Tigers around. I think it’s very healthy. I think it’s good to have somebody in your league the fans look forward to playing, and certainly the players do, and this is that game for us.”
KU’s Travis Releford said the game was special “because it’s an in-state rivalry. We are not as players making it, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s K-State.’ It’s more the fans and media making a bigger deal. I’m sure their players feel the same thing (as KU’s players). It’s just us versus them. The fans are making it a bigger deal than we are.”
Rookie of the week
McLemore on Monday was named Big 12 rookie of the week after 16.5 points in victories over Baylor and Texas. This is the third Big 12 honor this season for McLemore, who was selected as Big 12 rookie of the week on Dec. 24 and Big 12 player of the week on Jan. 14.
Releford, a fifth-year senior, is 8-1 versus KSU and 3-1 in Bramlage. KU fell to the Wildcats 84-68, on Feb. 14, 2011.
“It’s a fun place to play. Our upperclassmen are excited about going there to play because we know how crazy their fans are and how fun it is playing there,” Releford said. “We enjoy going on the road and playing games with crazy fans. We do enjoy it.”
Freshman McLemore attended last year’s game and sat in the stands during his red-shirt season.
“The crowd was crazy. It was a great atmosphere there. I’m getting prepared,” he said.
McLemore on his sprained right ankle
“I’m feeling great. I’m getting treatment, going to practice. I think I’ll be 100 percent. I’m getting better each and every day. I’m confident.”
KSU is 4-13 all-time against the No. 3 team in the U.S. Last home win against No. 3 was against Oklahoma, 66-51, on Jan. 16, 1990, at Bramlage. ... KU has won 44 of the last 47 meetings with KSU dating to the 1994 season. The Jayhawks have won nine of the last 10 and hold a 183-91 all-time series advantage. KU is 74-45 all-time in Manhattan, 22-2 in Bramlage. ... KSU has won two of the last five against KU at Bramlage. Since the inception of the Big 12, KU is 29-3 in regular-season battles and 36-3 including Big 12 Championship meetings versus KSU. ... Self is 19-3 vs. KSU, including 18-3 as KU coach; Bruce Weber is 0-1 vs. KU.
They get along
Asked of his relationship with KSU’s Weber, Self said: “Cordial, fine. I have no issues with Bruce. I know there were some things said after he replaced me at Illinois. I learned through the years I don’t know if you can take over a job and not at some point say something that appears to be controversial to the previous staff. I probably did it with Roy (Williams). That stuff happens.”