As March inches closer the games start to feel bigger and bigger. Kansas vs. Oklahoma State has that "big game" feel and this one on Wednesday might go a long way in deciding who will win the Big 12 regular season title.
KU will also have a chance at redemption against a team who came into its house and ended a 33-game win streak and began an uncharacteristic 3-game losing skid.
"The first game wasn't what we expected," said Naadir Tharpe. "The good thing about basketball is we get another chance to play a team again."
There is plenty of motivation for Kansas.
Both teams own a 9-3 conference record but it's Travis Ford's Cowboys who own the conference's longest winning streak at 7 in a row. Meanwhile the Jayhawks, winners of two in a row, appear to be back on track giving up just 109 points in their last two games, jettisoned on the defensive end by a raucous Phog Allen Fieldhouse crowd.
"Defensively, the last couple of games is probably as good as we've been but we also had the benefit of the energy of the crowd," Self told reporters Tuesday. "We will find out a lot more about ourselves on Wednesday. That will be as hard a game as we have this year going to Stillwater and winning because I know that they're jacked and excited."
Kansas will be a long way from the friendly confines of Phog Allen Fieldhouse minus the energy of 16,000 strong. The Jayhawks learned the hard way in the first outing against Oklahoma State what happens when they don't bring energy and fail to win the battle of the boards and the 50-50 balls.
"Even though the game is in the past it stuck with us. Everyone has that loss on their shoulders and we want to get it off," said Tharpe.
Though the stat sheet from game 1 against the Cowboys reads that KU won the battle on the glass 41-40, it was OSU that got every rebound that mattered especially late into the 85-80 loss. KU is coming off a defensive gem giving up just 47 points and featuring back-to-back shot clock violations against Texas. But on the glass KU gave up 20 offensive rebounds which remains a cause of concern.
"We've been a team that's been a good defensive rebounding team for a majority of the season and we've had some games like this most recent one vs. Texas where we rebounded the ball miserably and that's gotta be a point of emphasis," said Self referring to Saturday's totals. "We have to rebound the ball much better."
KU was torched by the OSU backcourt in the first matchup giving up 53 total points from Marcus Smart and Markell Brown. Brown did his damage from beyond the three-point line going 7-10 while Smart attacked the glass earning 9 rebounds. Kansas knows it must focus on guarding ball screens better than the first matchup and continue to try to keep the OSU guards out of the paint. But there's no doubt the keys to this game have to do with the intangibles and the glass.
"Simple - just box out," said Tharpe after being asked how to solve the rebounding issues. "We gotta hit somebody every single time. Even guards have to go to the glass because it was a majority of the guards getting extra rebounds than the bigs (in the first meeting)so that's something we've been working on practice - hitting each other everyday so that way we can make sure we steal that possession."
"First of all, play a lot better than we did when they came to our house," said senior Travis Releford when he was asked the keys to this rematch. "Rebound a lot better and get a lot more 50-50 balls I think that will be the key to the game."
"The first time we played them we respected them but I don't think we played with the same energy level that they played with or the same sense of urgency they played with. That's usually what happens when a team beats you that's usually the formula to lose when you don't do those things," Self pointed out.
"We didn't come ready and they wanted it more than us from the start to the finish," said Releford.
Oklahoma State is team Self says is definitely "trending upward" and thanks to a losing streak that the Cowboys began for KU back on February 2nd it looks like this conference race will go down to the wire. Kansas, a team once firmly in control of the conference race will have its hands full Wednesday and down the stretch of the season in the Big 12.
"I'm sure the building will be sold out so we put ourselves in a tough position knowing that there's very little margin for error but our guys usually respond favorably when the stage is pretty bright so I'm excited about it. We're playing pretty well," said Self.
And Self feels his team still has another gear. Kansas played its best basketball in December but maybe a tough and meaningful road contest against OSU is what the Jayhawks need to take that next step.
"Away games are obviously much tougher to win and you need to be really good in games you play away from home especially against teams as talented as Oklahoma State," said Self.
Self knows when his team plays with energy it is a really good basketball team but when that energy goes away Kansas becomes average quick. Energy on the road doesn't come as easily and it will be fun to watch the Jayhawks respond to the adversity of being in a tough environment away from home at Self's alma mater.
"It's a big game for one reason and that's because of the league race that's the reason it's a big game," said Self deflecting any conversation about using his alma mater as motivation for his players. "And of course the other reason its a big game from our players standpoint is because they've already beat us once."
"You're right the rematch and it's much easier to have a rematch at home than on the road. But we've lost at home before and had to go into K-State or whatever the case would be be so I think it's good that our guys get challenged like that."
"We are playing with a lot more energy," said Releford noting the difference between now and the team that lost to OSU on Feb. 2nd. "We want it more and we are playing for each other and that's all that matters now."