KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What once seemed like an inevitable conference title bout — Kansas vs. Oklahoma State, Andrew Wiggins vs. Marcus Smart — will get Thursday, 2 p.m. billing.It might not be Saturday's lights-and-camera primetime, but the action figures to be pretty fierce nonetheless.
Oklahoma State continued its season-saving hot streak — five wins in the last six games — with an 80-62 thumping of Texas Tech in the 8-vs-9 Big 12 opening round Wednesday at the Sprint Center.
The Red Raiders (14-18, 6-13 Big 12) were without leading scorer Jaye Crockett for most of the first half after the senior suffered a bruised right knee. Crockett returned to begin the second half as Texas Tech went on a 7-0 run to cut into the Cowboys' lead, 46-30, but that's as close as it got.
Now for a stiffer test. Kansas, the Big 12 regular season champs, lost its regular season finale at West Virginia without the services of freshman center Joel Embiid, who won't play this week. That doesn't do much to cause the contest to lose its luster.
"It seems only right, huh?," Smart said in the locker room after the win over Tech. "I guess that's what everyone will say. It's two heavy-weight fighters going at it and may the best [team] win."
The Cowboys (21-11, 9-10) began the season tied with Kansas as the preseason favorite. A seven-game losing streak — including a loss at Texas Tech which saw Smart get in a confrontation with a Raiders fan, resulting in a three-game suspension — spoiled that hope, turning the Cowboys into a sudden NCAA tournament outsider.
The team rebounded, losing only to Iowa State after Forte missed a clinching free throw with five seconds left and the Cyclones hit three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
"We have had a lot of downfall this season but everything happens for a reason," Smart said. "We came out and responded in a way we expected to respond. We gelled together as a team."
Oklahoma State's guard troika of Smart, Brown and Phil Forte combined for 52 of the team's points (65 percent), Brown leading all scorers with 20 points, 18 of them in the first half.
"I was concerned about this game, especially because we beat them pretty good the second game," coach Travis Ford said. "It's tough. I was very happy with the way our guys responded, very pleased."
Added Brown: "I think our best basketball is still ahead of us."
We'll see, and soon. As Ford notes, the Jaywhawks — even without Embiid — present an "incredible challenge."
"It's not gonna be easy," Smart said. "It's gonna be a war."