No. 15 Kansas maintains hope in Big 12 race with big win over No. 16 Kansas State

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Monday night’s biggest game featured an in-state rivalry in the Sunflower State as No. 15 Kansas stayed in the Big 12 race with a 64-49 home win over No. 16 Kansas State.

The win for Kansas (21-7, 10-5) means they’re only one game behind the Wildcats in the Big 12 standings as Kansas State moves into a tie with Texas Tech in the loss column. While Kansas State (21-7, 11-4) can still win-out and claim a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, this game could have massive conference implications heading into the final stretch.

Here are some takeaways from an important Kansas win.

Mitch Lightfoot gave Kansas a massive boost off the bench

The best player for the Jayhawks on Monday night was junior forward Dedric Lawson. Registering his 17th double-double of the season, Lawson finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five assists as his production remains among the nation’s best.

But Kansas doesn’t win so easily on Monday night without the outstanding contributions of reserve junior forward Mitch Lightfoot. An afterthought during most of his career with the Jayhawks, Lightfoot has earned more steady run recently as Kansas has tried to tinker with lineups that might work for the final month.

Lightfoot rewarded the Kansas coaching staff on Monday by finishing with nine points, five rebounds, three blocks and two assists. After Kansas went scoreless through the first TV timeout, Lightfoot gave the Jayhawks a major lift on both ends of the floor. Scoring on the inside, defending alone on the interior and swatting shots with Mutumbo-like swag, Lightfoot was so good that some on Twitter were joking that this would be called The Mitch Lightfoot Game.

Lawson is going to remain the go-to player for Kansas. Quentin Grimes (12 points) and Devon Dotson (16 points) are known talents who can provide a scoring pop. But if the Jayhawks want to stay in the Big 12 race, and make any sort of dent in the postseason, they need players like Lightfoot to step up and provide production. If Lightfoot can even give a few good spurts off the bench each game, it would alleviate a lot of what Lawson is asked to do on the interior and it makes his life significantly easier.

Does Bruce Weber trust Dean Wade?

Kansas State lost on Monday because its veterans didn’t come to play during the biggest game of the season. Outside of Kamau Stokes (12 points), the other Wildcat veterans struggled to maintain consistency at any point during the loss.

Xavier Sneed (eight points, 3-for-11 shooting) and Barry Brown (four points, 1-for-8 shooting) both shot the ball poorly and couldn’t seem to find any sort of rhythm. Kansas perimeter defenders — particularly Dotson on Brown — did a tremendous job of utilizing switches and smothering any kind of look the Kansas State offense could generate.

But most of the basketball world was puzzled by the decision of Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber to bench senior Dean Wade (eight points, four turnovers, 2-for-7 shooting) when the forward picked up his second foul during the first half. With the Wildcats noticeably struggling to get their offense going, sitting Wade — arguably the most important player for the Kansas State offense — was a controversial decision. A senior who has been one of the Big 12’s best players the past few seasons, Wade wasn’t given any sort of leeway from his coach during a critical spot.

So does Weber have trust issues with Wade right now? When Wade returned to the lineup in the second half, he really never got going. Wade fouled out on a loose-ball foul with over three minutes left to end an uneven and strange game. Since returning from injury, Wade has been inconsistent, and he really hasn’t looked like himself during the month of February. Wade hasn’t scored more than 12 points in any game since Feb. 2 as his offense has lagged in recent weeks.

Yanking Wade in the first half and not letting him play through mistakes during a huge game will be something to watch going forward. Wade and Kansas State could very well find themselves in this position again in the next few games and they have to do a better job of playing through foul trouble.

Kansas earns another quality win for its NCAA tournament cause

The crowded Big 12 race will be important to follow during the final weeks of the season, but Monday’s win was also very important for the Jayhawks when it comes to potential NCAA tournament seeding. Earning another Q1 win with the victory over Kansas State, the Jayhawks moved to an impressive 10-6 against the top quadrant of NCAA teams.

Sitting as a No. 4 seed in the latest NBC Sports bracketology projections released on Monday, Kansas dropped from a No. 3 seed after the blowout loss to Texas Tech over the weekend. Earning this Q1 win puts the Jayhawks back on track to potentially climb back to the No. 3 seed line as some of the teams currently there like Houston don’t have a high number of quality wins.

Kansas still needs to prove that it can win on the road during a two-game swing through Oklahoma before hosting Baylor in its regular-season finale. But all three of those games are winnable, which gives Kansas a chance at staying in the Big 12 race while also potentially putting them back up to a higher seed line.