It’s a shame Kansas refuses to play Wichita State these days, because Sunday was one of the most memorable games of the year. The Shockers’ 78-65 upset had it all: Accomplished coaches, tremendous players, electricity, anticipation, and an us-versus-them storyline. The Shockers win sends the 2-seeded Jayhawks to another early exit and threw WSU fans into a tizzy. It’s the result most of the nation is talking about today.
But all of that college hoops beauty is neutered annually because Bill Self repeatedly turns down Wichita State’s requests for a game. He fears exactly what transpired on Sunday – a loss to a “lesser” in-state rival. KU (like many big schools) desperately wants to avoid risking its turf as the dominant program in the state. It’s better for Self to turn up his headphones and ignore the shrills from those noisy neighbors down south, and just keep his feet moving forward,
The irony is that if these two did indeed play every year, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much for KU to lose. It’s Kansas’ self-made booby trap.
It’s an in-state rivalry that has more animosity than memorable moments because they’ve only played 11 time since World War II. WSU did pull off a dramatic win in the ’81 NCAA tourney, but almost every other battle since has been a lopsided KU win. There’s no good reason for these two tremendous basketball schools not to play annually. I was lucky to spend nearly five years working in Kansas City, attending a number of games at the Phog, living inside the Midwest’s college basketball boiler room. Mizzou, Kansas, K-State, Wichita State. Everyone hates one other.
But if you’re not a Jayhawk, people enjoy banding together to hate the Jayhawks (because they’re often the last ones still playing in March). Some of my very best friends are Kansas grads, and they embrace being the hated. Allen Fieldhouse, Wilt, Rock Chalk, Danny and the Miracles, Mario’s prayer. They consider themselves the birthplace of basketball for crying out loud. The Jayhawks win the Big 12 every year (no seriously, every year). They fill up the Sprint Center in downtown KC just like they used to fill up Kemper. In Lawrence, it’s Final Four or bust. It’s an assembly line of McDonald’s All-American’s. Everyone else is fighting over the scraps.
Except, the Shockers are pretty damn good now. They went to the Final Four two years ago. They were a one-seed last season. They’re headed to the Sweet 16 this year. And Self is paranoid about that success. KU can’t prevent playing K-State, they play in the same conference. Depending on which side of State Line you reside, they do refuse to play Missouri. Once the hated Tigers left for the SEC, KU now sends all Missouri calls to voice mail. They do the same with Wichita State.
But so much was made about yesterday’s outcome less for the gameplay, more for the context. The Shockers were smothering for all 40 minutes, suffocating the Jayhawks, outworking them on the glass, and using the extra pass to find the open man. Every big shot KU hit, Wichita State would answer with a back-breaker of its own. KU couldn’t get its head above water, and Greg Marshall’s relentless style kept dunking the Jayhawks under as they gulped for air.
The Shockers outplayed them, no argument about that. But this wasn’t a back-and-forth classic like Wichita State’s loss to Kentucky last year. That game goes down in history as one of the best of all-time. This is one everyone is talking about primarily because Kansas finally was forced to play WSU. And that perfect American sports dynamic of comeuppance happened.
We often resent the “haves” because they’re removed from the rest of us. They gate off their driveways, communities, and golf courses to insulate themselves from us wretched slobs. But on the field, you can’t avoid the peasants. Eventually, you have to play who is in front of you, and even casual hoops fans related to what was at stake for the Shockers yesterday. Wichita State was the “have-nots” and finally got its shot.
Once upon a time, Kansas accepted the Wichita State challenge. From ’85-’93 they played seven times, and the Jayhawks won all but once. All-time, Kansas is 12-2 against WSU. Eventually Roy Williams stopped the series, and Self has never believed in restarting it. But what is there for KU to fear? Losing recruits? WSU rarely even offers the blue-chippers that land at Kansas. Kelly Oubre chose Lawrence over UConn, Lousiville, Florida and Kentucky. KU’s Cliff Alexander had offers from Illinois and Michigan State. Kansas star Perry Ellis picked the Jayhawks over the Shockers, but he starred down the street from Marshall’s office at Wichita Heights High. He also said no to Kentucky.
If KU and WSU played every year, this wouldn’t have picked up half the steam it did nationally. There would’ve be no novelty, no culture clash, no catcalls of “What are you scared of Kansas?” Just two really good basketball teams that play in-state, and battled for a shot at the Sweet 16. Kentucky and Louisville tussle every year. Indiana took on Butler this season. Virginia has played VCU the last two years. Why is KU so petrified of WSU?
The Shockers’ win should alert all the big boys that avoiding the smaller programs in-state is like ignoring that drip in your ceiling. If you weather-proof it every year, you’ll be fine forever. It might cost you a little more in the short-term, but you’ll be better for it. Keep refusing to deal with it, that’ll be a world of hurt when the storm finally comes.
That storm came yesterday for Kansas. And today they’re feeling the hurt.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.