Kansas State, Xavier grow into rivals
SALT LAKE CITY – Xavier would figure to be the only team with a revenge motive in its West Region semifinal with Kansas State.
Sixth-seeded Xavier (26-8) will be trying to avenge a 71-56 regular-season loss to second-seeded Kansas State (28-7) when the schools meet Thursday in the West Regional at the EnergySolutions Arena. But the Wildcats believe they still haven’t gotten even with Xavier after suffering double-digit losses to the Musketeers in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
“To come out this year and really get a chance to kind of even it up a little bit, it would be tremendous,” Kansas State forward Dominique Sutton said. “If we could go out and win, we could tie the series up 2-2, but this is the stage where it really counts.”
This marks the fourth time Kansas State and Xavier have faced each other in the past four seasons. The three previous meetings featured heightened emotions, odd circumstances and physical play.
Xavier’s 76-66 victory over the Wildcats in the 2006-07 season spoiled the homecoming of then-Kansas State coach Bob Huggins, who had coached Cincinnati for 16 years before being forced out in the summer of 2005. The Musketeers’ 103-77 shellacking of Kansas State in Cincinnati on Dec. 31, 2007, remains the Wildcats’ most one-sided loss in Frank Martin’s three-year coaching tenure.
K-State earned some revenge this season with its Dec. 8 home triumph over Xavier. The Musketeers arrived at Kansas State amid a blizzard before shooting just 29.4 percent in a slugfest that featured a combined 57 fouls and 73 free throws.
Has this series emerged as a rivalry? That depends on whom you ask.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a rivalry where we’re about to go out there and rally up and knock each other’s heads off,” Xavier forward Jamel McLean said. “I think our coaches did a good job in scheduling a great opponent, and it was a good series.”
K-State guard Jacob Pullen disagrees.
“If you keep playing a team enough and they beat you and you beat them, you don’t really like each other too well,” Pullen said. “You could say it’s a rivalry.”
Pullen still has hard feelings from the blowout loss to Xavier two years ago. Pullen and Sutton were freshmen who each played 12 minutes in that game. Former Kansas State star Michael Beasley reportedly forgot to bring his shoes to the game. He borrowed a pair but didn’t score a basket until the final minute of play.
“They just embarrassed us,” Pullen said. “They laughed on the court. They played around. I think they were up like 30 or 40 points [Xavier’s largest lead was 30 points]. It was just a beating. You don’t forget beatings. You always remember those types of games.
“We got revenge earlier this year, but now it’s just about who wants it more. None of that stuff matters anymore because now it’s play or go home.”
Xavier believes it learned quite a bit from its most recent game with Kansas State. The loss provided a wakeup call to a team still adjusting to first-year coach Chris Mack, a former Xavier assistant who earned a promotion after Arizona hired away Sean Miller.
Kansas State outrebounded Xavier 46-33 and outscored the Musketeers 16-5 in second-chance points. Xavier committed 13 turnovers and dished out only six assists on its way to recording its lowest point total of the season.
“They just played hard,” McLean said. “We didn’t realize how hard they played until we were into that game. I think we kind of took a page from their book. From that point on, we stepped it up defensively and rebounded the ball a lot better.”
The loss dropped Xavier to 5-3, which included a 0-3 mark against schools from one of the six major conferences. Xavier has gone 21-5 since, with 10 wins in its past 11 games.
After failing to control the glass or take care of the ball against Kansas State, Xavier now ranks second in the 14-team Atlantic 10 conference in rebound margin (plus-5.1) and is fourth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.1-to-1).
“It was our first true road test of the season,” Mack said of the Kansas State game. “We certainly didn’t pass it. But I thought it made our kids and our team a lot stronger and a lot better because of it. I think we’ve gotten better on both ends of the basketball [court] since that time.”
Even though they expect to put up more of a fight this time, the Musketeers have downplayed the notion of a revenge motive. Frankly, that theme already has grown tiresome.
Before they defeated Pittsburgh 71-68 in the second round, the Musketeers heard questions about whether they wanted to get back at the Panthers for knocking them out in last season’s East Regional semifinals.
The subject certainly will come up again if Xavier advances to the regional final against Butler, which faces Syracuse in the other West Regional semifinal. Butler edged Xavier 69-68 in a Dec. 19 game that included a controversial finish after the clock inadvertently stopped in the closing seconds.
“We’re not going into [Thursday’s] game saying we have to beat them because they beat us earlier this year,” Xavier swingman Dante Jackson said. “We’re saying that’s we have to beat them to advance to the Elite Eight. That’s the only thing we’re thinking about.”