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Kansas basketball is back on track in Big 12 Conference play

LAWRENCE — Kansas men’s basketball limped to the finish line Tuesday.

After a 90-78 win against Kansas State, head coach Bill Self resolved the injury issues facing the Jayhawks without much hesitation.

Up front is freshman guard MJ Rice (back), who warmed up but didn’t play. Then there’s redshirt senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (finger) and sophomore guard Bobby Pettiford Jr. (hamstring), two regulars in the rotation who each went out of the game in the second half before returning. And Self was only naming boys in the pool of 10 scholarship players — out of 13 on a roster — Kansas was thought to have available before the tip-off.

While the Jayhawks outscored the Wildcats in the first half, the two sides ended up match-ups in the second half.

But despite that limp, #8 Kansas ended up protecting home court against #6 Kansas State. The Jayhawks, following a non-conference win against Kentucky, ended a three-game losing streak against Big 12 Conference opponents. They also demanded a rematch against a rival after a loss in early January.

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“I think pride is a big factor anytime you play in state school,” said Self, whose team had seen Wildcats fans storm the Manhattan field earlier this season. “… We talked about beating K-State, but we didn’t talk about beating K-State because of it. We’ve talked about beating K-State largely because they beat us the first time around. And even though they won the game, and deservedly so, we didn’t do many things to improve our chances of winning the game in the final regulation and overtime possessions. So, we figured it might go the other way and our boys were definitely ready to play tonight.

Kansas (18-4, 6-3 in Big 12 play) has seen the decline in production of redshirt junior forward Jalen Wilson and freshman guard Gradey Dick since K-State’s last game. Dick struggled to hit field goals Tuesday and Wilson scored 20 points in this win after scoring 38 points against Kansas State in the loss. Benching the Jayhawks was instrumental, and McCullar and redshirt junior guard Dajuan Harris Jr. also resumed their production.

Harris had 18 points, tying a career high. McCullar had 16 points to match the 13 rebounds he had in his double-double. And the bench, led by Pettiford’s six points, combined for 19 against the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3 in Big 12 play).

Wilson knows he doesn’t need to score more than 30 points to win Kansas. Like Self, Wilson thinks he’s at his best when all five guys on the field are trying to score. And that was illustrated Tuesday, albeit in a game plagued by so many bad calls that he averaged one per minute, another reason play on the bench was so critical.

“We just understand that we had to go out and play today,” Wilson said, reflecting on what motivation he drew from his early season loss to Kansas State. “The way it ended last game was obviously not how we wanted it to go. And it was kind of like a big rub in the face, them rushing in and stuff like that. So, I always remember stuff like that, of course. And I just wanted to make sure we got off to a flying start today, set the tone early and check the game. And I feel like we have for the most part.

Maybe there’s a third installment of the rivalry in store this season at the Big 12 tournament. Maybe in the title game. But for now, the win puts the Jayhawks back on track in the Big 12 after going from 5-0 to 5-3.

Self isn’t sure what record he’ll take to the Big 12 regular season crown. As of Wednesday morning, Texas topped the league at 7-2 in conference play, with four teams — including Kansas – at 6-3 and Baylor at 5-4. But Self doesn’t think anyone will go 9-0 in the second half of the conference.

“We need to go play good at Ames,” Self said, referring to the Jayhawks’ upcoming game Saturday at Iowa State, “and play good at home Monday (against Texas).”

Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas athletics at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is the National Sports Media Association Sportswriter of the Year for the state of Kansas for 2022. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.

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