K-State, Kansas in stretch run for title

Monday, March 4, 2013

The first time that Kansas State coach Bruce Weber approached Bill Snyder about speaking to his team, Snyder, the ‘ol football coach, jokingly said that the Wildcats were playing too well and that he didn’t want to mess things up.

After a loss to rival Kansas University, Weber tried again.

“I came back and just asked, ‘Coach, could you have 15 minutes to talk to the guys,’” Weber recalled recently. “We’ve had different people throughout the year speak. Obviously the kids really respect him. He’s an icon on this campus, in this state and really in the country, so they were very attentive, and he was very right to the point.”

Snyder told the basketball team that one of the biggest reasons that his Wildcats won a surprising Big 12 title this season is that they followed the philosophy of being 1-0 every week.

Never look past the next game. Think only about what’s ahead.

“We’ve kind of followed that philosophy,” Weber said. “If you’re 1-0, you stay in first every time. We’ve been able to do that since he talked to us.”

It took some doing Saturday night, when Baylor threw a full-court inbound pass out of bounds to give the Wildcats the ball under the Bears’ basket with a second left. Rodney McGruder got an open look at the top of the key and buried a buzzer-beating three-pointer to steal the win.

It left No. 13 Kansas State (24-5, 13-3) tied with the sixth-ranked Jayhawks (25-4, 13-3), who pounded West Virginia on Saturday, for first place with two games remaining.

The Wildcats host bottom-dweller TCU on Tuesday night before finishing at No. 15 Oklahoma State, which is a game back in third place. The Jayhawks should have an easier finish with a home game against Texas Tech tonight and a visit to Baylor on Saturday.

The Wildcats have won five straight since Snyder addressed the team, and now have their eyes on at least sharing their first regular-season conference title since 1977.

They would become the third school to have their football team win the Big 12 title and their basketball team a regular-season crown in the same season since the league started in 1996 — Texas did it in 2005-06 and Oklahoma the year before, though the Sooners also twice won football titles and Big 12 basketball tournaments in the same season.

“When they won it, that’s the first thing I thought about,” the Wildcats’ Martavious Irving said of the football team. “It’s pressure, and we’re pretty good, even though we’ve got a new coaching staff. I was thinking, ‘Now it’s kind of like we’ve got to win it, too.’”

The Wildcats have had no shortage of success in recent seasons, making three straight trips to the NCAA tournament. But they’re also aware of their conference championship drought.

“You look up on that wall, you see the last time that we were conference champions was 1977,” McGruder said. “That was a long time ago. I wasn’t even thought of. It just goes to show that we have a chance to accomplish something great.”

The Jayhawks are far more accustomed to such greatness.

After blitzing the Mountaineers on Saturday behind a career-best 36 points from Ben McLemore, Kansas is closing in on at least a share of its ninth consecutive conference title.

To put into historical perspective, only four schools have won more in a row: UCLA won 13 Pac-8 and Pac-10 titles in the 1960s and ‘70s, Gonzaga won 11 straight in the West Coast before last season, UConn won 10 Yankee titles from 1951-61, and UNLV won the Big West every year from 1983-93.

The Jayhawks would be assured of matching Idaho State of the Rocky Mountain (1953-62) and Kentucky in the SEC (1944-53) if they manage to win their final two regular-season games.

“We just have to focus on what is in front of us right now,” McLemore said. “Our focus is just to go out there and play ball.”

For now, both teams are focusing on two games for all the laurels.

“We don’t have to worry about our record now,” Irving said. “We just worry about winning the day, and winning the next game that’s on the schedule.”