LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The road to the Big 12 title these days is fraught with peril.
There's parity, with seven teams sitting .500 or better in conference play. There's plenty of talent with young stars such as Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and Kansas State's Rodney McGruder. And there's an 18-game, double-round robin schedule that will grind up and spit out all but the grittiest, toughest teams in the league.
Kansas proved Monday night that the journey to a championship still runs through Lawrence, Kan.
After falling a game behind the No. 10 Wildcats during their first three-game losing streak since 2005, the No. 14 Jayhawks returned to the friendly confines of the Phog and needed all of 20 minutes to bury their bitter in-state rivals in what turned out to be an 83-62 blowout.
Now, the eight-time defending Big 12 champions are back on top, tied with the Wildcats - whom they've beaten twice - and a half-game ahead of the Cowboys in the standings.
``We're definitely a first-place team,' said the Jayhawks' Jeff Withey. ``We see ourselves as one of the best teams in the nation. That's not going to change. We lost three games in a row, but we're going to spin that into a positive. Eventually, that's going to make us a better team.'
They couldn't have been much better than they were Monday night.
Freshman Ben McLemore hit six 3-pointers and scored 30 points on his 20th birthday while Withey piled up 17 points, 10 rebounds and swatted five shots to break the school's career record for blocks held by Greg Ostertag.
It was 47-29 by halftime, when the Jayhawks were shooting nearly 60 percent from the field, and Kansas State never managed to get closer than 15 during an uneventful second half.
The Jayhawks' first-half point total was their most since playing American in December. Their 18-point cushion was their biggest in Big 12 play. They held the Wildcats' bench to just four points, the best they've done all year. And their 41-23 rebounding edge was also the best in Big 12 play.
``I thought we played with great energy. We acted like we were having a lot of fun out there. A lot of enthusiasm,' said Kansas coach Bill Self, who moved within four wins of 500 for his career. ``It's amazing. You have those sorts of things happen, good things can happen.'
The Jayhawks (20-5, 8-3) looked more like the team that peaked in December with a 74-66 win at Ohio State than the one that lost 62-55 to lowly TCU last Wednesday night. They managed to get into a rhythm on offense, they dominated in the low post, and they took McGruder out of the game in the first half, when the outcome was ultimately decided.
``They got us strung out,' said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber. ``They got us in transition, way too many layups, and we just broke down defensively, which we'd been pretty good at.'
The Wildcats had won four straight games to claw their way into first place, taking advantage of the Jayhawks' recent stumble to create a little more intrigue in Monday night's match-up. Then the Jayhawks took it all away with their big first-half charge.
The Wildcats (19-5, 8-3) still control their fate, though. They could win the rest of their games and assure no worse than a tie for first place in the Big 12, and that would mean the first regular-season conference championship for Kansas State since the 1977 season.
``Are we going to come into practice on Wednesday ready to compete, or are we going to feel sorry for ourselves? That's the main thing,' McGruder said Monday night. ``I know my teammates, we're going to come in ready to fight, and get ready for Baylor on Saturday.'
Kansas State has a tough road, playing the Bears twice and visiting Oklahoma State in its regular-season finale. But it already has a win over the Cowboys and split with Iowa State.
The No. 17 Cowboys (17-5, 7-3) still have to play the Jayhawks and Wildcats at home, along with tough games against Oklahoma and Iowa State down the stretch.
Then there's the Jayhawks, who visit Oklahoma State on Feb. 20. They also visit Iowa State and Baylor, but those three games appear to be the biggest road blocks standing in their way.
Not necessarily the roughest road on the way to a ninth straight championship.
``We still control our own destiny, even though it will be difficult,' Self said. ``Without question.'
The Associated Press News Service
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