January 28, 2008

Walker grasps scope of Kansas game

Bill Walker got the message loud and clear this past summer. "I went on the Catbacker Tour and every place we went, it was, ‘Beat KU, beat KU.' It means a lot to the fans at Kansas State," Walker said. Not just beat Kansas, but beat Kansas at home. With Walker and Michael Beasley, two of the nation's top freshmen, stepping on the floor for the Wildcats on Wednesday, it's easy to understand why K-Staters are so hopeful that the program's mystifying 24-year home losing streak to KU is about to end.

There are many explanations as to why Kansas has beaten K-State every time the two teams have played in Manhattan since a 58-57 K-State victory on Jan. 29, 1983 at Ahearn Field House. The easiest explanation is the most simple and probably the most painful for K-State fans: Kansas has had better players.

Name the last time K-State put the best player on the court in a matchup against Kansas. Mitch Richmond? Well, even when Richmond was in uniform for the Wildcats from 1986-88, the Jayhawks featured Danny Manning making that equation a wash.

The two seasons Richmond played for the Cats saw K-State lose 80-75 in two overtimes and then drop a 64-63 decision during Richmond's senior season in Ahearn's final season. Of course that same season, K-State beat KU that year in Lawrence, 72-61, to end the Jayhawks' 55-game home winning streak. The date? Jan. 30, 1988, exactly 20 years prior to Wednesday night's game in Bramlage Coliseum.

It's understandable for young fans to not realize how similar the two programs were in 1988. They had rich traditions, great players, storied venues and even met in the Elite Eight of that season's NCAA Tournament. It was on that day the two programs went in different directions. KU beat K-State 71-58 to advance to the Final Four and, of course, win the national championship.

The two programs have not been the same since. KU's destiny was to become one of the modern era's elite programs, although the Jayhawks still have not won another national title. K-State went into a slow spiral that has resulted in the once-great program becoming mired in mediocrity.

The path to not just breaking the home losing streak, but to reinventing the K-State program began with the hiring of Bob Huggins prior to last season. Huggins bolted and passed the reins of the program and the "vision" to Frank Martin. Wednesday's game not only offers Martin a chance to rocket the program forward, but to put him and this team into Wildcat lore forever.

"We came here and shared a vision. We came here because it was up to us to elevate Kansas State to a championship level basketball program again," Martin said. "KU has been the best team in this conference the last four years and we want to be measured against them."

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