Heading into Saturday evening's matchup with Kansas State at freshly minted Octagon of Doom (aka Bramlage Coliseum), any and everybody with a pulse knew that the second ranked Kansas Jayhawks were heading directly into a juiced and dangerous environment.
Thanks to the stewardship of Frank Martin, Wildcat basketball is experiencing a bit of a renaissance built upon toughness, athleticism and guards like Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente who frustrate defenses with their quickness and willingness to not only take, but make wild shots look easy. So good, in fact, are the Wildcats this season that they had already knocked Texas out of the nation's top spot and beaten every other team who was ranked at the time they played.
As if a program on the uptick hosting their most bitter and hated rivals wasn't enough to fire up a fanbase that has embraced the moniker of "America's angriest fans", ESPN and College Gameday were in the house and a national television audience watched at home. Ask any Kansas State fan in the building, this was going to be their night despite Kansas entering the contest holding a 30-2 advantage over the Wildcats since the inception of the Big XII Conference.
Forty-five minutes of game time and almost three hours later, it almost was the Wildcats night. But, somehow, Kansas survived foul trouble, injury issues and a failure to lock down the defensive glass while scoring an 81-79 decision in a wildly entertaining overtime game.
Not surprisingly, it was the Jayhawks All-American candidates that led the way. Senior point guard Sherron Collins scored 16 points and shook off cramping issues to put the game away with a crucial drive during the waning seconds of overtime. Meanwhile, junior center Cole Aldrich shrugged off foul trouble and played the final 5:51 of regulation and the entire overtime without picking up his fifth foul while producing team highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds in addition to some very important blocks.
In a situation where many teams would have caved, Bill Self's squad emerged victorious and needless to say the head coach was thrilled with his team and their approach.
"We talked the whole time that we were going to embrace the atmosphere," said Self of his team's approach. "We wanted it to be as loud as we are ever going to play, we wanted it to be the toughest venue that we played in. We talked about that because that will tell us where we are from a competitive level, from a toughness level. I thought the crowd was awesome."
Admittedly, it wasn't always the prettiest brand of basketball. But, the Jayhawks exhibited a level of toughness that Self and fans of the program had openly wondered was existent or not. In that, the Jayhawks have begun to create an identity.
"We played to win and we played with a toughness level and we played with some poise in a hostile arena," gushed Self. "My identity for us I think should be that we're a tough hard nosed team that enjoys it when it counts the most and hopefully we're getting to that point."
Shortly after the game, Kansas players hung out inside Bramlage celebrating their win as they waited to board the team bus. They hugged family members and junior guard Brady Morningstar suggested that the only way to get Collins' umm, cajones, back to Lawrence was to strap them to the top of the bus. Smiles were everywhere as they should be.
But, turn on postgame call in shows, read the message boards or go to a local watering hole and the story wasn't always the same. Sure, the majority of fans were tickled with a hard fought win. Still, there was also a very vocal minority looking to find fault and lay blame for almost losing at the hands at somebody, anybody.
Actually, that's a lie. The most favored target of fans disgruntled with the win was sophomore guard Tyshawn Taylor. There's no doubting that Taylor has had a sophomore slump both on and off of the floor. However, it seemed almost as if some fans would have rather lost the game so that they could rail on Point Plank'N rather than win and be told that he played well by those not predisposed to blaming Taylor for everything that is wrong in the world.
Because, that's what Taylor did. Despite a tough turnover during the last minute of regulation, the New Jersey native dug deep and made crucial plays driving to the basket that resulted in free throws he drained when the Jayhawks needed them most. During overtime. With Collins on the bench.
"I thought Tyshawn, we don't win the game without Tyshawn," said Self of his beleaguered guard. "I thought he had a couple bad plays, but I thought he played really, really good. Really well."
No matter how they got there, what should be most important to Jayhawk fans is that this Kansas team moved to 20-1 overall and took control of the conference race by moving to 6-0 during Big XII play. For at least a day or two, that should be more than enough for the Jayhawk faithful.
Self certainly thinks it's enough.
"Forget about anybody else other than the two teams that were playing here," said Self during the postgame. "I thought that was a great game. I don't think we played great. I don't think it's possible to play great as hard as K-State plays. I don't think they played great probably because we played hard."
"It was two competitive teams getting after which are the most fun games to watch and be a part of."