KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Consider Dean Wade an expert witness on the basketball rivalry in his home state. He grew up in small town St. John, Kans., northwest of Wichita and basically in the middle of the state.
“K-State fans, KU fans … they hate each other,” he said Wednesday during Big 12 Media Day. “It’s a pure hate. That’s the best way to explain it.”
Teammates Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes corroborated Wade’s testimony.
“It’s like Florida State-Miami, Texas-Oklahoma in football, it’s Duke-Carolina in basketball,” said Brown, who is from Florida. “It’s not like people think of us as KU’s little brother, it’s just that they think Kansas is so far above everyone else.”
“I don’t think people outside of the state know or understand the rivalry,” said Stokes, who is from Baltimore. “Before I got here, I didn’t understand the rivalry, all I heard was KU. It’s always, always KU.”
For the last 14 seasons, the Jayhawks have won the Big 12 regular-season championship, a unique accomplishment that has never been accomplished in college basketball and like Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak will likely never be broken.
But nothing lasts forever, and streaks inevitably end. While Kansas is the preseason pick to finish atop the league standings and is also ranked No. 1 to begin the season, Kansas State returns all of its key players from a team that made a surprise run to the Elite Eight last season.
Why not the Wildcats?
“That would mean a lot to me and probably even more to K-State fans,” Stokes said. “We’ve got a lot of goals and for us seniors, we’ve never beaten them.”
Since starting the streak in 2004-05, the Jayhawks have shared first-place four times. The last time that happened was 2013 when they finished tied with … K-State. That was Bruce Weber’s first season in Manhattan.
“Everyone in the league hopes to be the one to do it,” Weber said while standing in a hallway at the Sprint Center Wednesday. “It would be nice if we do it. It’s about K-State and it would be great for the fans. I think we have a chance. And Kansas is picked No. 1 … not just our league, but the country.”
The last two seasons, Kansas appeared vulnerable because of thin roster. In particular, Weber is most impressed that the Jayhawks prevailed again last season despite playing a four-guard lineup.
This season, Kansas is loaded with at least four front-court players plus a stellar freshmen class. The Jayhawks have to replace their top three scorers from a Final Four team but instead of regressing, KU is expected to be as good if not better.
K-State is left in the corner, jumping up and down, waving for attention. The Wildcats return five starters, their top five reserves and add freshmen guard Shaun Neal-Williams. Plus, last season they proved that adversity could be their friend.
“We dealt with so many bad things last season that if we face that sort of thing this year, I don’t think it will freeze us,” Weber said. “That’s important. They surprised me. They kept coming back last season.”
Stokes, the team’s point guard, suffered a foot injury in the middle of conference play. He eventually returned as more of a role player and Cartier Diarra took over running the team. Wade, selected as the preseason player of the year by league coaches, was injured in the Big 12 tournament and unavailable for the NCAA Tournament. Xavier Sneed, Makol Mawien and Mike McGuirl all helped take up the slack during the run to the regional final.
“When one of your brothers goes down, you have to pick him up,” Stokes said. “I got hurt and Cartier and Mike came in and played for me, picked up the slack. When Dean went down, Levi (Stockard) and Makol stepped in. Everybody stepped up. It showed how close we were as a family. We’re gonna build on that because we’re healthy and everybody is going to contribute.”
The Elite Eight run with reserves playing big roles created a problem most coaches would accept. The Wildcats have outstanding depth and doling out playing time will be a challenge. Weber would prefer to have a solid eight-man rotation.
“We have to figure that out, keep ‘em all happy,” he said. “I’ve been talking to the team about that from Day One.”
Senior guard Barry Brown, who averaged nearly 35 minutes a game last season, has a strong dislike for the bench. He wants to play every meaningful minute. Weber, though, has explained he’d like to limit Brown to around 32 a game to keep him fresh, especially for the end of the season. Weber used the example of Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, who averaged 32 minutes a game for the national champions.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be fine,” Brown said regarding playing time. “It’s not about the minutes, it’s about what you do in those minutes. Hopefully we’ll come out of the game because we played so hard that we’re tired and wanna come out.”
Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis who is expected to be Kansas’ best player, was the No. 4 vote-getter for the Associated Press preseason All-American team. Wade received nary a vote.
Weber was incredulous – “How can that be?” – and he’s also curious about why K-State isn’t ranked higher than 12th in the AP (11th in the coaches’ poll).
“It still baffles me a little bit,” Weber said. “We have everyone back, we were in the Elite Eight without our best player, with some of the best stats in … probably the best conference in the history of a 10-team league, and we are not rated as high. Sometimes they just don’t pay attention, I guess.”
For the team from the Little Apple, it’s a variation of the riff from “The Brady Bunch” – Kansas, Kansas, Kansas. Brown, who is as confident as he is fearless, says it just fuels the fire.
“We’re picked second in the conference and 12th in the nation, but we’re keeping that chip on our shoulder,” Brown said. “Second is still not first.”