No. 13 Kansas Jayhawks (19-6 overall, 8-4 Big 12) vs. Iowa State Cyclones (13-11 overall, 4-8 Big 12)
Time: 6 p.m. | Location: Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa
TV: ESPN2 | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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1. Press the release valve
With KU's loss at Baylor last weekend dropping the Jayhawks a game behind Texas Tech in the Big 12 standings with six games to play, things are starting to get a little tense around Lawrence.
The bulk of that pressure can be seen and measured by the panic of a KU fan base that has become used to the Jayhawks winning the conference every year, often watching them do it with relative ease.
KU coach Bill Self said he understood that and appreciated the passion of the fans. But he was not about to let the current situation infect his team in the locker room or during practice. And he's doing his best to maintain a positive mindset while reminding his players that all of their goals remain attainable.
“You could make a lot of things out to be positive, negative. The reality is, we just haven't played as well of late,” Self said. “We just need to go to Ames and play with a fresh mind and let it ride.”
2. Azubuike has to be better
Redshirt freshman Cameron Lard recorded a whopping 17 rebounds in Iowa State's most recent game, a total that even had Self singing the 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward's praises this week.
“Any time a freshman gets 17 rebounds in a game, that's impressive,” Self said. “Especially against OU.”
Lard recorded a double-double against the Jayhawks in the first meeting (15 points and 10 rebounds) and outplayed Azubuike, who finished with nine points and six rebounds.
The 7-foot Jayhawk is going to need to reverse that output to give Kansas a chance and the easiest way for him to do that is by staying on the floor.
Azubuike is battling through quite a stretch where bad fouls have limited his court time and Self said the easiest way to solve that issue is for Azubuike to play “smarter.”
“You guys can see what a drop-off there is (when Azubuike is on the bench) because attacking a zone when you have no inside presence in there makes it a little bit more difficult,” Self said. “So we need him in the game the vast majority of the minutes.”
And he needs to be a force and have the biggest impact of anyone when he's out there.
3. Bench production
With veteran Nick Weiler-Babb out with a knee injury, the Iowa State lineup gets pretty young and pretty thin in a hurry.
This could be a good game for Kansas to look to its bench for an edge, especially if Self elects to stick with the same starting lineup he employed vs. Baylor and brings Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick off of the bench.
In their most recent game — an 88-80 home win over Oklahoma — the Cyclones utilized their bench for just 27 total minutes (spread over three players) and got three points on five shots to go along with four rebounds, three assists, three fouls and a turnover.
That's tame production even by Kansas standards this season. And whether it's Vick and Newman, Marcus Garrett and Mitch Lightfoot, or some combination of that group, the Jayhawks should expect to outperform ISU's bench. Doing so would go a long way toward helping the Jayhawks emerge victorious.
Devonte’ Graham vs. Lindell Wigginton
In the first meeting between these two teams, Iowa State freshman Lindell Wigginton used his muscular build and explosive quickness to dot the Jayhawks for 27 points in 40 minutes.
He made 10 of 20 shots, four of eight from 3-point range, and got the rim whenever he wanted while leading the Cyclones to the brink of an upset.
The Jayhawks knew going into that one that Wigginton was a talented player, but they'll have a much better idea of just how talented in the rematch. And because of that, they figure to give senior Devonte' Graham the task of trying to slow down the ISU freshman.
Asking him to guard the opponent's best player has been a season-long trend and has added to the wear and tear experienced by Graham, who has played all 40 minutes in eight consecutive games.
It's unlikely that he will check Wigginton the entire way. And, for what it's worth, Graham had an off shooting night (4-of-14) but still managed 11 points, nine assists and four steals in 37 minutes the first time he faced the ISU freshman.
Tonight figures to be as entertaining a battle as we've seen all year, with the crafty senior against the fiery freshman. Both players are as competitive as they come and both are likely to rise to the challenge of trying to keep the other in check.
Although Iowa State certainly has had more intimidating rosters during recent years, playing inside Hilton Coliseum has never been easy for anyone in the Big 12.
Winners of their last four home Big 12 games — by an average of 13 points over the likes of Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and West Virginia — this group of Cyclones is playing with a ton of confidence and playing much better than its overall record might lead one to believe.
“They've got a lot of nice pieces and Steve (Prohm is) a really good coach and they run some clever stuff so we'll have to be very, very sharp on both ends,” Self said of KU's most recent challenge.
Although the game at hand has enough to command KU's attention, and with the league race tightening by the day, KU's focus could drift from issue to issue. Instead, Self remains locked in on helping his team improve every day and finding the confidence and chemistry that seems to be missing of late.
The Jayhawks lead the all-time series with Iowa State, 180-64, but are just 4-3 over the Cyclones in the last seven meetings. Las Vegas lists Kansas as a 6.5-point favorite in this one.
No. 13 Kansas
G – Devonte’ Graham, 6-2, 185, Sr.
G – Marcus Garrett, 6-5, 180, Fr.
G – Svi Mykhailiuk, 6-8, 205, Sr.
F – Mitch Lightfoot, 6-8, 215, Soph.
C – Udoka Azubuike, 7-0, 280, Soph.
G – Lindell Wigginton, 6-2, 188, Fr.
G – Donovan Jackson, 6-2, 173, Sr.
F – Zoran Talley Jr., 6-7, 190, Jr.
F – Cameron Lard, 6-9, 225, RS-Fr.
C – Solomon Young, 6-8, 245, Soph.