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K-State Is Kansas' Last Major Hurdle Before Missouri Comes Calling

Missouri and Kansas won big on Saturday, and Kansas has another big game tonight against Sunflower Showdown rival Kansas State.

Missouri is unbeaten at home this season in Columbia, where the Tigers are 14-0.
Missouri is unbeaten at home this season in Columbia, where the Tigers are 14-0.

If you were a road team on Saturday in the Big 12, you had no chance. All five games were won by wide margins by the home teams, including winless Texas Tech (0-11 previously in Big 12 play), claiming its first "W" in league competition in an 18-point blowout over fellow bottom-feeder Oklahoma before a half-empty house in Lubbock.

A weekend replay sums up this way: Missouri and Kansas continue to pummel their opponents, heading toward a Showdown of gargantuan proportions two weeks out with the conference crown looming for the winner. Baylor continues to fall while Iowa State continues to move up in the standings. And Kansas State is in grave danger of falling out of the March Madness conversation after blowing a 13-point halftime lead at Texas and having to turn right around a face and even tougher test against a Kansas Jayhawk team playing about as well as anybody in the country right now.

The one saving grace for Kansas State in its game tonight vs. the Jayhawks is the game is in Manhattan, where Kansas suffered its worst regular-season defeat a year ago, losing to the Wildcats by 16 points.

Unless things change pretty drastically between now and March 3, the final weekend of the regular season, the four teams that will be earning coveted first-round byes in the Big 12 postseason tournament will be Missouri, Kansas , without question, Iowa State and, most likely Baylor, although the Bears appear to be on a steep downward spiral at the present. Two games still separates the stumbling Bears, but neither Texas nor Kansas State appears to have the staying power to make up the difference, even with six games still remaining.

As far as K-State is concerned, coach Frank Martin is searching desperately for something positive to help get his team turned around. In doing so, he can't afford to look backward or too far forward, because there is nothing the Cats can do about the second-half collapse at Texas, and his teams next three games are against Kansas, Missouri and Baylor, all teams that are ahead of Kansas State in the standings. Here is something positive for Wildcat fans to contemplate, though: If Kansas State were to pull off the upset in any or all of the next three games, they will have a quality win or two to point to that could just get them off the bubble come NCAA Tournament selection time.

At this late stage, there isn't too much mystery left in the Big 12 men's basketball race. Five or six teams are probably going to get into the NCAA Championship from the Big 12, with the Jayhawks and Tigers the only ones right now whose places are secure. Baylor and Iowa State are almost sure selections, but the final two spots are still up for grabs, with Kansas State and Texas currently holding on for dear life.

ESPN March Madness guru Joe Lunardi currently has Missouri projected as one of the four top seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and some experts are even considering the Tigers a strong contender to be one of the final four teams standing. One of the chief reasons for this is that the high field-goal and free-throw percentage of Mizzou's four guard, senior-dominated lineup can be a critical advantage come tournament time when the ability to score and shoot free throws late can be the difference between winning and losing in a one-game elimination tournament. In the interest of fair balance, however, I hasten to point out that the Tigers have never been to a Final Four.

Kansas City Star sports columnist Sam Mellinger had the perfect description of the Tigers this season: "They are short, but quick. They can be overpowered around the basket, but win a game from the three-point line. They can give up baskets, but make up for it on the other end," Mellinger writes.

Despite a 15-point win over his alma mater on Saturday, coach Bill Self was not happy with the Jayhawks' second-half performance against Oklahoma State, on a day in which KU wore throwback uniforms and honored its 1952 national championship team. Kansas jumped all over the Cowboys early, shooting almost 70 percent in the first half and running out to a 27-point halftime lead. The Jayhawks let the lead evaporate all the way down to 12 points in the second half, committing 11 turnovers to none for the Cowboys.

"This is like an NCAA Tournament game," the KU coach said. "You have a lead, come out flat for five minutes in the second half and you can't get the momentum back. It's a good learning experience."

In addition to KU-K-State tonight, there is another big game on the schedule down in Waco, where Baylor will take on Iowa State, the team they're tied with for third place. Baylor will be trying to stop a two-game losing skid against the top teams in the league. Four of the Bears' last eight games have been against Kansas and Missouri. Before then, Baylor had won its first 17 games of the season and was ranked No, 4 in the country.

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