- Jeff Shelman
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Forgive Kansas State coach Bob Huggins if he doesn't share quite the same excitement about tonight's game at Kansas as the rest of the folks in purple.
Sure, the first-year Wildcats coach understands that Manhattan and Lawrence are separated by a mere 85 miles. He knows that his fans would like nothing more than for Huggins to lead Kansas State to its second consecutive victory at KU's Allen Fieldhouse. He gets all that.
But Huggins also understands a little something about rivalries.
"They're trying to tell me it's a rivalry and I keep trying to explain to them that we have to win a few and we have to be playing for something for it to really be a rivalry," Huggins said. "I tried to explain to them about Cincinnati and Louisville, it's about the same distance apart. Two great storied programs. When Denny [Crum] won about 100 in a row, people in Louisville didn't get too excited about Cincinnati. Then we started winning some then all of a sudden it became a rivalry."
We'll play along a little bit and accept that this isn't a rivalry game. After all, the Jayhawks have won 32 of the last 33 meetings between the two schools. But this is at least a very interesting game between two schools that happen to be located in the same state. It has become, for the first time in quite a while, a relevant game, a February game with some significance.
Kansas State, after all, has won six consecutive conference games and seven overall including Saturday's victory at Texas. The Wildcats (17-6 overall, 6-2 in Big 12) already have exceeded their win total from last season. Unlike a year ago, K-State is winning close games and it is winning on the road.
Kansas (19-4, 6-2), on the other hand, is trying to avoid consecutive home losses and consecutive losses to K-State at the Phog for the first time since 1988 and '89. The Jayhawks are also trying to remain in contention for a regular-season title as tonight's winner will be alone in second in the Big 12 standings.
From the moment Huggins was hired at Kansas State, there was virtually no question of whether the former Walsh College, Akron and Cincinnati coach would make the Wildcats competitive. That was a given. The only real question was how long would it take?
Like him or loathe him, it's difficult to argue with his accomplishments. In his first 24 seasons as a head coach, Huggins won 567 games and had a winning percentage of .740. He led teams to 15 NCAA tournaments and his 1992 Bearcats team reached the Final Four. He averaged 23.5 wins per season and his teams won 10 regular-season championships.
The constant through those seasons has been the effort with which his teams have played. His Cincinnati teams defended and scrapped and clawed and played with great passion.
This Kansas State team isn't that different. It has taken a while, but the Wildcats are starting to take on the look and the swagger of a Huggins team.
"We're playing hard, we're playing real hard," Huggins said. "We're trying to guard."
That is about as big of a compliment as a team can get from Huggins, a coach who values perspiration over points.
The Kansas State players acknowledge that playing for Huggins instead of former coach Jim Wooldridge definitely required an adjustment. Practices were going to be intense and volume-filled, playing defense is an absolute and so is rebounding. Huggins' substitution pattern is pretty simple: If you don't defend, you're coming out of the game.
"You can have 20 points and you're coming out of the game and you know why you're coming out," forward David Hoskins said. "It's not a mystery.
"It's all about defense. You can't control if the ball goes in or out [of the hoop], but you definitely can control rebounding and playing defense. He always says playing hard is a taught skill; it's not something you're born with. He's worked hard at teaching us how to play hard."
The transformation of the Wildcats didn't happen immediately. Early in the season, K-State resembled the team that went 2-8 in true road games last season.
"They really honestly bought in pretty good," Huggins said. "But they didn't know what they were doing."
There was a 24-point loss at New Mexico, a 30-point loss at California and a one-point loss at Colorado State that dropped the Wildcats to 4-3 on the season. Things started to change, however, on a trip to North Dakota State. That would be the same Bison team that won at Wisconsin a year ago and won at Marquette earlier this season.
"We went to North Dakota State and to most people that doesn't sound like a great win, but they billed it as the biggest game in the history of North Dakota State basketball and people were hanging from the rafters and they're a good team," Huggins said. "We go in there and hang in there and win [83-81]. After that we got Bill (Walker) and that gave our guys some confidence. Then we go to Vegas and beat Southern Cal and New Mexico – which had beat us earlier – and it was a shot in the arm."
While Walker, the extremely talented freshman, was lost for the season just five minutes into K-State's Big 12 opener, the Wildcats have continued to play well. Senior guard Cartier Martin has become a more well-rounded player. Hoskins, an undersized forward who plays very hard, is a perfect example of a Huggins player. Senior guard Lance Harris has reached double figures five times in the past seven games.
"I think they're playing with a lot more confidence," Huggins said. "They were an awful road team, just an awful road team. I think they got some confidence."
How did that happen?
"I would hope we helped a little bit," Huggins said.
There's little question that is the case.
"Coach always talks about being able to go in anywhere and not having any fear of any team and know you're supposed to win," Hoskins said. "Not going in there wanting to win, but going in there knowing that you've put in enough work that you're supposed to win.
"We're starting to realize what it takes to be a team and be able to win on the road."
Saturday's victory at Texas was certainly an important step. Because even though Kevin Durant got 32 points and nine rebounds ("Wow is he good," Huggins said), the Wildcats rallied in the second half and got a victory that should attract at least a little attention from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Getting to the NCAA Tournament -- a place K-State hasn't ventured since 1996 -- is Huggins' main goal for this group of seniors.
"I would love for this group of seniors to be able to experience that," said Huggins, whose team has moved into the top 40 of the RPI since the victory over the Longhorns. "They've been through a lot. Hopefully we can win enough games here down the stretch and finish high enough in the league so we could do that."
A win tonight would move K-State closer to earning a tournament appearance. This game, however, will be a significant challenge.
"They're so explosive. Look at what they did to Oklahoma State, look at what they did at Nebraska. They're as talented as any team in the country, as evidenced by the Florida game," Huggins said of the Kansas. "They are really, really talented. They've got a whole bunch of guys who can play at the next level. Not just a few, they've got a bunch."
Because of that, Huggins is downplaying his team's chances.
"Our margin for error is so small. It's not that we can't win. We can win, but we have to do things right."
After all, this isn't really a rivalry.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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