Back in September, the Kansas State Wildcats had every reason in the world to be excited about the upcoming season.
They were coming off a school record-setting 29-win season and their first Elite 8 in forever. Pretty much everyone and their dog had the Wildcats in their preseason top-10. Jacob Pullen was back for his senior season and picked to be an all-American and Big 12 Player of the Year. Even the Big 12 coaches tapped the 'Cats as the preseason favorite to win the conference.
Now, after enduring more drama than Susan Lucci, the Wildcats find themselves at 16-9 overall, 4-6 in the conference and sitting on a very soft NCAA tournament bubble.
A heartbreaking 58-56 loss to Colorado in Boulder Saturday – complete with Pullen getting his pocket picked in the last minute for an easy basket and a Rodney McGruder buzzer-beating three being disallowed – was Kansas State's season in a nutshell.
None of this, however, changes the way the Kansas Jayhawks see their Big Monday rematch with Kansas State.
"We're gonna get tested big-time Monday," coach Bill Self agreed.
"Usually teams rally around adversity, and that's a good thing," Self said. "I would anticipate (KSU) playing very well on Monday. I don't think Frank looks at us and says, 'Well, they're beat up right now,' so maybe he'll think less of us, and I'm certainly not going to think less of them, regardless of anything that's going on. To me, they're playing much better now than when they came over here the first time. We'll respect that."
The Kansas Jayhawks anticipate business as usual at Bramlage Coliseum, complete with a crowd bordering on psychotic and a tough, physical Wildcats team that now finds itself with their collective back against the wall when it comes to a return to the Big Dance.
Tyshawn Taylor said, "It's gonna be a dogfight. They always have a good crowd when they play against us. So, we expect it to be a good game. They've been goin' through their ups and downs, but (KSU coach) Frank (Martin) is gonna make sure they play hard, and they've got guys who can score. It's gonna be a tough battle."
Throw in the mix that Kansas will likely be ranked number one when the ball goes up and that make this game just that much more interesting. Last season, Texas went into Manhattan ranked in the top spot and came out a 71-62 loser. In fact, the Longhorns' never seemed to be the same team after that setback.
"They're gonna give us their best shot," Marcus Morris cautioned. "Their fans are gonna be juiced. We're gonna be number one goin' in there. It's gonna be a tough environment."
A win on their home floor over over Kansas could be just the boost Kansas State needs to regain some confidence and back on track.
Self doesn't really have a feel for whether or not all this adversity – which included the departures of big men Freddy Asprilla and McDonald's all-American Wally Judge from the team – would affect coach Frank Martin's game plan or preparation.
"I have no idea. I asked Frank and he wouldn't tell me," Self said, smiling. "I have no idea what they're planning on trying to do."
So, while Kansas State looks to be a bit of a wild card going into Monday night's nationally-televised game, the Jayhawks have been absolute road warriors this season. In fact, they haven't lost outside the friendly confines all year. Morris attributes the team's success away from Allen Field House to the respect they have for all their opponents, regardless of their record. That's something he thinks they may have lacked last season.
"Last year, we went out with the mindset that we're (ranked) number one, so no one could really touch us. This year, anybody can be beat in the Big 12. It's different every game. You've just got to go out and stick to the game plan."
Self says that his team's consistency on the road is because he has the luxury of coaching experienced players who enjoy winning away from home.
"These guys, except for Josh (Selby), that have played a lot of minutes have played in a lot of big games, and locker rooms are fun when you win at home, but they're much more fun when you win on the road, as far as feeling like you've really accomplished something. I think they enjoy going into other people's buildings and getting other people's best shot. That's more of a true evaluation to (his players) of who we are and where we're at."