Commentary

Late-night math: Jayhawks, Wildcats

Updated: October 15, 2010, 3:24 PM ET
By Tim Dwyer | Special to ESPN.com

Bill Self calls it Kansas math. It's the math that takes the 2009-10 Jayhawks, subtracts the school's winningest player and two lottery picks, then expects more from the 2010-11 team.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pullen
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesThe beard didn't slow Jacob Pullen last season when he led K-State to one of its best finishes ever.

Except this time the math doesn't add up.

So it's difficult for me and other Kansas students to get this: Big 12 coaches tabbed Kansas State as the favorite to win the league in their preseason poll, predicting that the defending champion Jayhawks won't repeat.

Of course, tell any Kansas fan walking into Late Night at Allen Fieldhouse tonight that Kansas State should be the preseason No. 1 and you'll cause a sputtering, disbelieving, vitriolic attack.

I've been at KU for three of the Jayhawks' six straight league titles. By this point, the sense of entitlement on campus extends past the Wildcats to the entire Big 12. With the way the football team has played the past two years, hoops is our hope. "Wait 'til basketball season" is a common refrain. It's our sport. Our source of bragging rights. And if Kansas State takes that away this year and steals the rightful king's crown, it'd be a crippling blow to our sports ego.

Even in preseason, it is painful that our in-state rivals have been picked among college basketball's best. There's little respect for the Wildcats in Lawrence. Bramlage Coliseum is called Allen Fieldhouse West. Since 1994, the Sunflower Showdown hasn't been so much a rivalry as it has been a little brother trying to pick fights with a stronger big brother to prove his worth -- and failing.

I remember when the visiting Jayhawks lost to Michael Beasley's Wildcats a few years back. KSU fans across the state celebrated (the two-disc DVD set was probably a little over the top, though), and Beasley said they'd beat KU in Manhattan, in Lawrence, in Africa. The place didn't matter. A few weeks later in Lawrence, an 88-74 whooping by the Jayhawks set the world back on its proper axis.

After the 59-7 football drubbing Thursday, that axis is now well tilted toward Kansas State again. So why do I fear an ego-bursting blow that many Kansas fans find unimaginable?

Start with the fiction that the departures will hurt the Wildcats as much as the Jayhawks.

For K-State, Denis Clemente's points and minutes were critical to an Elite Eight run, but Luis Colon was maybe the worst everyday starter in major-conference college basketball last year. Dominique Sutton was a fine player but no Xavier Henry.

For Kansas, Sherron Collins was the winningest player in history at a school that has done a lot of winning. Henry had the full offensive arsenal, and Cole Aldrich's shot-blocking presence covered all manner of defensive sins.

Kansas takes more of a hit at each position and has less to fall back on (if Josh Selby isn't eligible). I don't care what kind of math you're using, that adds up to a serious learning curve, and I had planned on coasting through my final semester.

There are also facts that Jayhawks fans selectively forget.

Wildcats fans may not be able to cry "Fear the Beard" for the freshly shaved Jacob Pullen, but there's no less reason to be wary. The guard, who is now a baby-faced assassin, averaged just shy of 19 points per game last year. Against Kansas, he was even better, averaging 21 per in the regular season.

Jamar Samuels, the 2010 Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year, will provide a matchup problem unlike anyone else in the league as a 6-foot-7 swingman. He averaged 11 points off the bench last year. Expect more as a starter. Throw in Curtis Kelly and what could be the best frontcourt in the country and the Wildcats have a roster primed to take down their in-state sibling.

Coaching also matters, and Kansas fans love to say Self is the best in the country. It's a legitimate argument -- except he may not be the best in the state. Frank Martin, the reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year, has the chance to become to Kansas State basketball what Bill Snyder is to Kansas State football: a legend famous for turning the program around and owning the rivalry. No one is expecting blowouts, but if Martin can steal a pair of wins from the Jayhawks in one season, it would be the first time since before Pullen was born in 1989.

[+] EnlargeFrank Martin
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesWill the fire of Frank Martin help turn South Carolina into a contender in the SEC?

Despite all that, the Kansas math creeps back in. Divide the Wildcats' strengths, subtract the Jayhawks' weaknesses, add oversized expectations from both fan bases, carry the one and voila, by some counts you have a Jayhawk winner. I'm a writer by trade, so I'm no good with equations. Don't ask me to show my work.

My hopes, and those of my fellow Jayhawks, lie in a loaded roster and a potent freshman point guard (Selby was ranked No. 5 on the 2010 ESPNU 100). Marcus Morris is a legitimate Naismith candidate to counter Pullen. If there's a better frontcourt in the Big 12 than K-State's, it is Kansas' Morris twins & Co.

On Thursday, in a show of spirit, students with sledgehammers pounded a purple sedan with Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas' jersey No. 8 painted on the side into scrap metal. After getting steamrolled by the Wildcats, they whacked away cathartically well into the night and the start of basketball season.

On Friday, there will be no undercurrent of fear or doubt during Late Night at the Phog. Fans will watch their team for the first time and proclaim its strengths. Of course, ESPN has already spurned Lawrence to attend KSU's midnight madness, projecting what Jayhawks fans fear most: The Wildcats are ready to put a chokehold on state bragging rights.

Come Jan. 29 when these rivals meet on the court, Thomas' number will be replaced by Pullen's 0, and if the Big 12 coaches are right, Kansas fans will need more than a sledgehammer to erase the pain.

Martin, Pullen & Co. could open another chapter of the Kansas math book (check the shelves at Varney's in Aggieville for advance copies). One that takes into account the fact that the longtime little brother now grown up. One that says the Wildcats are greater than the Jayhawks in 2010-11.

Tim Dwyer is a senior journalism and English major at the University of Kansas. Reach him at tdwyer@kansan.com.

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