Depending on where you are in Kansas, you’ll probably receive several different answers when begging the question, “Who has the best college basketball program in the state this season?”
Northeastern Kansans will likely argue it’s the Kansas Jayhawks who appear to be on their way to an unprecedented tenth straight Big 12 title. Between their past success and incomparable home-court advantage, the Jayhawks have been the world’s sole image of basketball in Kansas for many, many years now. Toss in the projected top two overall picks in this year’s NBA Draft, and one would be hard-pressed to make an argument against coach Bill Self‘s group.
But South-central Kansans have certainly been trying. After all, their undefeated Wichita State Shockers have provided them a compelling case. Following analysts disregarding last season’s tournament run as nothing more than a fluke, the Shox, 26 games into their season, have yet to drop a single game. They excel at forcing teams to play to their strengths and simply know how to win ball games.
Still, if you happen to find yourself in the seemingly endless flatlands of Western Kansas, you may find locals singing yet a different tune. It’s likely just the Kansas State Wildcats‘ alumni — they’re fresh of an upset of the No. 7 Jayhawks earlier this week. They currently sit third in the conference and can feasibly still catch their in-state rivals if things fall their way.
So who has the most legitimate claim to the throne of Kansas basketball this year? Let’s take a look.
Kansas State Wildcats
After a 3-3 start, including a loss to Conference USA‘s eighth-place team, Charlotte University, things didn’t look great for Kansas State. But since December, the team has gone 14-4 on its way to compiling an impressive resume for the NCAA tournament. The Cats have recorded quality wins against Texas, Oklahoma State and most recently Kansas, but I’m not buying it.
Why? A glance at the their record away from the comfort of Baramlage Coliseum tells the story of a team totally unprepared for postseason play. They’re 1-4 away record and 3-2 neutral site clip doesn’t bode well for their chances in the big dance. They simply lack the consistency and height in the post to be a serious threat.
Additionally, I’ve never been sold on Bruce Weber as a head coach; he’s a terrible time manager and has yet to advance past the Sweet 16 in his unremarkable career. Sure, K-State has ran into a few quality victories this season, but don’t be fooled; this team is not of the same caliber as the state’s other two occupants.
Wichita State Shockers
While the Jayhawks may have the nation’s two most individually discussed players in freshman Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, no team as a whole has been talked about more than Wichita State. You know the deal; they’re undefeated but in a weak conference, and not many are sure just what to think of them.
The Shox have few true weaknesses; they’re solid down low and from behind the arc — they shoot over 33 percent as a team — while possessing a stellar defense that leads the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring and opponent field goal percentage.
Coach Gregg Marshall‘s team has played quality, selfless basketball, and they’ve been a model of consistency throughout the season. Even when Wichita State has a subpar night shooting, its defense picks up the slack, like in their 57-45 defeat of Loyola earlier in the year. But while Marshall clearly has built a great program in Wichita, I’m still not quite prepared to label them as Kansas’ best.
While the Shockers’ surprising year has certainly made it a fun debate, make no mistake, the Jayhawks are still top dogs in the Sunflower State. Even though they’re only 18-6, Kansas is No. 1 in terms of RPI and strength of schedule after what’s been a grueling year in terms of competition.
With wins against the likes of Duke, New Mexico and Iowa State (twice), Kansas has shown the ability to handle tournament-caliber competition. With Self at the helm and arguably the deepest bench in the nation, the Jayhawks still own college basketball in the plains.
Though consistency has been an issue, the formula seems to have remained similar to Self’s previous few squads: struggle a bit late before putting it together just in time for March. It’s a young team ripe with freshmen who have slowly grown into their respective roles over the course of the season. They’ll be most dangerous when tournament play begins.