“It was two very good teams playing Saturday night. We played pretty well, had total control and then did not play the last five minutes,” Self said at his press conference on Monday. “Give Texas A&M credit. Acie Law (he hit the game-winning three-pointer with 24 seconds remaining and finished with 23 points) made some great plays, but we did not play the last five minutes. Not playing the last five minutes and the fact that during that time we did not force them to play poorly obviously caused the loss. There were a lot of good things that happened, but we need to correct some things. We need to finish games better and understand the importance of possessions and getting stops on those possessions. ...What beat us the other night was that Texas A&M scored nine points in their last three possessions. When you are up nine with five or six possessions left in the game, you should win.”
Kansas (19-4, 6-2 in Big 12) is now back at work in practice hoping to right the ship with the upstart Kansas State Wildcats (17-6, 6-2) coming to Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday for the Sunflower Showdown at 8 p.m. KU, which leads the all-time series vs. KSU (171-89), will be looking to start another winning streak vs. K-State after losing to the Wildcats at home last year for the first time since 1994.
KU is facing a K-State team on a roll. KSU has won seven straight games, including a huge 73-72 victory over No. 22 Texas on Saturday at Austin. Cartier Martin led the ‘Cats with 27 points, as K-State ended UT’s 22-game home winning streak and was KSU’s first win at Texas since 1983. The win also marked the first time since 1987-88 that K-State has won six straight league games, and its first victory over a ranked opponent on the road since 1996.
First-year Wildcat coach Bob Huggins has indeed brought hoops madness back to Manhattan, and will have his team jacked to play in Allen Fieldhouse. K-State is led by Martin (6-7 forward) at 15.5 points per game, followed by 6-5 guards David Hoskins (14.7 ppg) and Lance Harris (10.9 ppg). Akeem Wright, a 6-6 guard, is the team’s defensive stopper and averages 7.3 points and a team-leading 6.1 boards. And don’t forget 7-3 freshman center Jason Bennett, who leads the conference in blocked shots (2.25 bpg) despite averaging just 14.1 minutes per game.
Self knows the Wildcats pose a tremendous challenge.
"We expect them to play the same way they have been playing,” Self said. “They have been playing tough and hard. They've always been good defensively, but they really have played well offensively in league play. They had two guys (Martin and Harris) combine for 12 three-pointers against Texas on Saturday. They are well-coached, very good and very tough."
"From a confidence standpoint, they should be sky high after winning seven in a row and six straight in the league,” Self added. “And from a looseness standpoint, they should be as well, especially the way they played at Texas in coming from behind. They should be confident and loose, which is how we should play. We need to play both ways."
The Wildcats are even more formidable this season with Huggins on board. Now in his 25th year as head coach, Huggins has won an amazing 74 percent of his games (584-205). Self is certainly glad to have Huggins a part of the Big 12.
“I thought it was a great hire because you brought instant interest to our league and primarily to Kansas State,” Self said. “I really felt that Kansas State had good players and they still have good players, but it produced a different feeling about the program. I was at Oklahoma State when Coach Eddie Sutton got the job and when he arrived, it was just a different feeling because he had such a great track record. I think the same thing is happening over in Manhattan.”
Self admires the job Huggins has done with his team.
"I think they are doing a great job of combining toughness with poise,” Self said. “If you watch David Hoskins, the game is in slow motion to him and he is still a very tough player. The hire has been great also for Cartier Martin because he's become more than what he was before and he was already pretty good. He has a presence about him now. I think toughness can be defined a lot of ways, but I think Kansas State has a presence, just like Texas A&M did the other night. I think they have done a great job of instilling that."
And Self wants his team to play with a similar presence every night. KU actually outrebounded the physical Aggies on Saturday, 40-29.
“I would say it is probably the number one thing with us — how hard you play, how unselfish you play and how tough are you,” Self said. “That is how coaches in their own mind are judged. I would say it is a huge emphasis in their camp and certainly is in ours as well."
With his team at the halfway point of conference play and the Big 12 race still up for grabs, Self hopes KU can rise to the challenge and close out games.
"I don't think any team team keeps its focus for every possession for all 40 minutes,” Self said. “There were too many possessions like that the other night (vs. the Aggies), though, with the game on the line. That has been a problem with us all year long and has also been a problem for us in practice. I don't want to say we lost Saturday because we lost focus. Guys were trying. We just went a little brain dead down the stretch. If you look at our four losses, DePaul and Texas A&M, we had the game in hand late. Against Oral Roberts, we never had the game, but one or two stops, and we could have. Against Texas Tech, we were down 12 with three minutes left, so guys made plays to bring us back. I thought Texas A&M was tired at the end, which gave us a chance to drive a nail in the game and we just didn't do it."
One player who has come up big and made plays is Sherron Collins. Although he committed two costly turnovers late in the Texas A&M game, the freshman guard from Chicago has been dazzling the last month. He’s scored in double figures in eight of his last 10 games and willed KU to victory over Missouri in crunch time on Jan. 15, and sparked a 13-1 rally in the closing minutes at Texas Tech five days later. Collins, who led KU with 18 points vs. Texas A&M in just 23 minutes, is KU’s second-leading scorer in Big 12 play (13.0 ppg) and shooting a scorching 59.4 percent from the field and 55.1 percent from three-point land. For the season, Collins is averaging 9.3 points in 20.3 minutes per game while sharing time at guard with sophomore Mario Chalmers and junior Russell Robinson.
"We'll probably need to get him some more minutes,” Self said. “He’s a guy that can play 26-28 minutes a game. We'll probably sub him in earlier."
Whether it’s Collins, Chalmers, or sophomore forward Brandon Rush, Self is still looking to find that go-to guy who can step up down the stretch consistently and make big shots like Law did against Kansas.
“I don't buy into the thinking that everyone is sitting around watching or waiting for someone else to do it,” Self said. “I do buy into the thinking that it is an advantage in having one guy who you can give the ball to and get out of his way. That is what Texas A&M did. When we had that with Keith Langford and Wayne Simien, we could play a little two-man game and we don't quite have that yet. It has been a different guy in a lot of games and hopefully we'll get better in that situation. I still think we will. ...I would say missing that guy has probably affected my coaching style because it depends on who is playing well that night."
Of course, Self will need many guys playing well on Wednesday to beat the surging Wildcats in the first game between the two schools in the Bob Huggins era at K-State. With Huggins now in Manhattan, the KU-KSU rivalry should be heating up in the coming years with national exposure and reminding basketball fans of the great duels of yesteryear between the two schools. Those were the days when Jack Gardner, Tex Winter, Jack Hartman, and Lon Kruger patrolled the coaching sidelines in Manhattan, while KU coaches Phog Allen, Dick Harp, Ted Owens, Larry Brown, and Roy Williams led the Jayhawks in Lawrence and made their own mark in Kansas basketball tradition.
Now on Feb. 7, 2007, it's Self's Jayhawks vs. Huggins' Wildcats in Allen Fieldhouse. The matchup may not draw the national attention like North Carolina vs. Duke, but you can bet future KU-KSU games soon will.
“I think it will quickly become a very talked about rivalry," Self said.