It was just 16 days ago that Iowa State and Kansas clashed in Ames with first place in the Big 12 on the line. Monday night's tilt will come under similar circumstances and for each team, this is the biggest game left on the regular season schedule.
The Cyclones prevailed in round one, using transition run-outs to exploit holes in the Jayhawk defense, coming away with an 86-81 victory. That is the lone loss on the ledger for Kansas in conference play and according to this story from Fox Sports Kansas City, they're not happy about it.
What's At Stake?
Starting with Kansas, they already have a one-game lead over Iowa State and West Virginia in the conference standings, so scoring a win on Monday night will create some serious separation between the Jayhawks and what figures to be their most serious competition in ISU.
Notching that victory will also be critical for Bill Self's team in the event that there is a tie in the records at the end of the year. To say the least, getting swept by their biggest threat to an 11th-straight conference championship will create issues down the road.
For Iowa State, this is an opportunity to atone for the losses at Baylor and Texas Tech, which are both games that they could have won and in the case of the Lubbock fiasco, should have won. The Cyclones have to find a way to make up some ground and what better chance to do so?
The Mayor's crew will also be looking to win in Lawrence for the first time since 2005 when Iowa State shocked then #2 Kansas in OT. In the time since, ISU has dropped nine straight in "the Phog".
As for big picture stakes, Kansas and Iowa State are likely the conference's best shot at landing a 2-seed in March (though West Virginia could still technically be in play as well). The winner of this contest will make a serious statement to the committee, positioning itself as the top dog in the deepest conference in the country.
Re-familiarizing Ourselves With the Jayhawks
Since losing to Iowa State, Kansas has ripped off four straight wins, including knocking off challengers like Texas (in Austin), Oklahoma and Kansas State in the process. The Jayhawks combined margin of victory in those three contests was 31 points.
In the process, Kansas has established itself as the league's top defensive team, holding opponents to a conference best, 36.7% shooting while also limiting the opposition to only 63.8 points per game.
Offensively, the Jayhawks have found their stroke from deep, hitting 39% of their shots from outside, which is the top mark in the Big 12. Kansas is also dishing out 15.8 assists per game, which is second in the conference to only Iowa State (16.1).
The emergence of Frank Mason, who's solidified the lead guard role for Kansas, has bolstered the Jayhawk offense and he leads the team in scoring in league play at 13.3 points per game, though Perry Ellis isn't far behind at 12.4 per contest.
Two players to watch on the Kansas side will be the freshman tandem of Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander. Both have played better of late, but are still prone to disappearing in stretches. When they both sync up and are playing well, Kansas is as good as anyone in the country. When one or both of them struggle, this team becomes very beatable.
In the first contest, Oubre scored 10 points and grabbed 8 rebounds, but shot just 5-15 from the floor. Alexander looked good early on, scoring 6 points and pulling down 6 rebounds, but played just two minutes in the second half after finding himself in Self's dog house for a lack of effort.
We talked prior to the first match up about how the personnel on this Kansas roster can often be solid, but rarely spectacular and few guys personify that more than Wayne Selden Jr. The 6'5" sophomore appears to have every skill necessary to be a dominant figure in the Big 12, but still takes a back seat to guys like Mason, Ellis and Oubre. Selden just hasn't been able to put it all together offensively and is shooting just 34.4% from the floor on the year (and yes, I realize that he's probably going to rip ISU for 25 points tonight simply because I'm pointing this out).
So Who Wins?
Dating back to that last Iowa State win in Lawrence in 2005, Kansas has lost just four home games in conference play since. The Cyclones have had their chances (2013) to steal a victory, but winning in Allen Fieldhouse is among the more difficult things to accomplish in all of college basketball.
Throw in a clearly pissed off Jayhawk outfit that has revenge on their mind and I can't imagine that the task will be any easier on Monday night. Iowa State has held a second half lead or been tied in each of their past three trips to Kansas, but has fallen short each time.
Truth be told, I don't think either fan base is too terribly shocked that this game has taken on this type of importance. This is how it not only should be, but how it was supposed to be, right? The programs in Norman, Austin and Manhattan have all taken their turns at ending the Jayhawk reign, but perhaps it's only Iowa State and The Mayor that can present a realistic long-term threat to knocking Kansas off its perch.
Iowa State is going to have to play its best game of the season to win and I'm not so sure that they won't. For better or for worse, I think we've established by now that this Cyclone team thrives off of playing in these spotlight games.
The most intriguing thing to watch will be seeing how Iowa State weathers Kansas runs. If the Cyclones find themselves in a position where they're holding a 2-3 possession lead, can they keep Kansas at arm's length or will they allow quick 4-0 and 5-0 runs to balloon into larger, momentum-killing runs?
We saw Iowa State do a brilliant job of neutralizing the home crowd and halting any sustained runs in wins in Iowa City and Morgantown, but this is Lawrence, Kansas and more importantly, this is "the Phog".
My head and my heart are telling me two different things. I absolutely think Iowa State is good enough to come away with a win, but how do you pick against 10 straight years of dominance?
Well, with apologies to Lee Corso, ahh fuck it.
Eat shit, Jayhawks.
Iowa State 84 - Kansas 82
Tip: 8 PM CST
TV: ESPN, with Brent Musberger and Fran Fraschilla on the call
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here
Kansas SB Nation Site: Rock Chalk Talk