MANHATTAN, Kan. — Sure as the celebration launched by the rush of humanity that flooded the court as the seconds ticked away on Kansas State’s 74-67 win over Kansas on Tuesday, the Jayhawks’ remarkable streak of Big 12 dominance is in danger.
This sixth KU loss in seven true road games felt different than the others, different than the rout at the hands of Iowa State and the late lead inexplicably blown at West Virginia.
It felt different because Kansas can always — well, almost always — count on righting its wrongs against rival K-State. Not on this night, which marked the first win by Kansas State over KU in nearly four years and just its fifth over the Jayhawks in 31 games at Bramlage Coliseum.
These Wildcats have hit their stride since the return of senior forward Dean Wade, the preseason Big 12 player of the year who missed six games in December and January with a foot injury.
His absence turned K-State into a dark horse. But you might remember that coach Bruce Weber’s team danced within one win of the Final Four a year ago and began this season as the most real threat to dethrone Kansas in the league.
With five weeks to go, well, here they are — alone atop the Big 12 standings at 7-2 as Baylor visits Texas on Wednesday with a chance to match K-State’s mark. Iowa State is lurking, too, one back of the Wildcats in the loss column.
No. 13 Kansas, meanwhile, sits tied for fourth with Texas Tech at 6-4. Fourth place after 14 straight regular-season Big 12 titles. The last time the Jayhawks won fewer than seven of their first 10 league games? It was 25 years ago in the Big Eight.
KU has real concerns that extend beyond its conference record and the scoreboard in Manhattan. The Jayhawks remain without big men Udoka Azubuike, out for the season, and Silvio De Sousa, suspended for all of this year and next.
Veteran guard Marcus Garrett did not play Tuesday because of an ankle injury. Lagerald Vick logged just four minutes in the first half and did not start the second half because of an undisclosed concern.
As a result, a 15th straight Big 12 championship ought to rank down the list of Kansas’ priorities.
“We ain’t even worried about that,” forward Dedric Lawson said. “We’re just worried about getting better.”
Good idea, coach Bill Self said. Despite the temptation to consider scenarios ahead of K-State’s Feb. 25 visit to Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks are better off staying focused on their own issues, according to Self.
“We shouldn’t even be concerned about the damn race right now,” he said.
“Are we in a great position to win the league? No. Do we deserve to be in a great position? Absolutely not. Can we flip the switch? It remains to be seen.”
Kansas possesses the skill, with Lawson and Vick as major scoring threats. Freshman Devon Dotson sparkled at times Tuesday, while fellow rookies Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji struggled in their Sunflower Showdown debuts.
The Jayhawks committed 23 turnovers, prompting Self to describe the performance as “one of the worst days of offensive execution” that he could recall.
“It’s leadership. It’s toughness. It’s inexperience,” the coach said.
Mental toughness and physical toughness.
“This team doesn’t have much of it right now,” Self said.
“Our young kids have never been in a situation like that. They ate us up pretty good. We were never, ever remotely comfortable. And that’s a credit to them.”
Yes, credit Kansas State. With Wade, senior guard Barry Brown and sophomore Cartier Diarra, whose windmill dunk in the final minute nearly blew the roof off Bramlage, Kansas State isn’t going away.
“We could have come over here and played great tonight and still lost,” Self said. “They’ve got a really good team.”
After Baylor goes to Texas, Kansas State is the only Big 12 contender with five league road games remaining — starting Saturday at Baylor. The Bears also must still travel to Lawrence.
“To me, the most important thing, we’re in first place,” Weber said. “Long way to go. I hope it’s not finished.”
Kansas State surely doesn’t look finished. As for the Kansas streak, as Self said, it remains to be seen.