LAWRENCE, Kan. — We are creatures of habit, and our habit is to greet The Sunflower Showdown with a shrug. Or a golf clap, if we’re feeling frisky.
Kansas-Missouri evoked memories of a rivalry centuries old, a hate passed down from generation to generation, a tilt dripping in blood and spite. Kansas-Kansas State felt for years like a contractual obligation, the little brother getting his twice-a-year comeuppance on the driveway hoop.
We want our basketball drama to be compelling, and compelling means the outcome should not be considered a foregone conclusion. The Jayhawks have won 44 of the last 47 meetings, which is about as foregone as it gets. It’s a rivalry, all right — the way the Washington Generals and the Harlem Globetrotters are a rivalry.
Every year, Jayhawks vs. Tigers was played for the right to own the hearts of Kansas City. Every year, Jayhawks vs. Wildcats was played for the right to own the hearts of Topeka. No offense meant to Topeka, but you get the idea.
“Kansas State has always been the rival, but I think it was more of a respect rivalry than what Missouri’s was,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose No. 3 Jayhawks visit No. 11 K-State tonight at Bramlage Coliseum in a showdown of the Big 12’s last two league unbeatens (4-0). “Because I think on both sides of the Missouri rivalry, there was a lot of hatred that was involved. I mean, we obviously didn’t like them, and the feeling was very mutual. I never felt that way against K-State … I don’t know why, I never did.
“I think this will turn a little bit, to become more heated as we move forward, because we don’t have the Tigers around, and they don’t have the Tigers around. So I think it’s very healthy. I think it’s good to have somebody in your league that fans look forward to playing, and certainly the players do, and this is that game for us.”
And, if you’re a hoops junkie, this one has a lot to look forward to, potentially. For starters, both squads have earned their keep, in distinct and different ways: The Jayhawks (16-1) with their speed and size; the Wildcats (15-2) with defense and depth. Kansas’ top offensive weapon is a redshirt freshman (Ben McLemore); K-State’s No. 1 scoring threat is a senior (Rodney McGruder) who’s started in 84 straight contests.
It offers up a rare slice of history, too — the Jayhawks and Wildcats have met 274 times on the hardwood, but this is only the 10th time since 1950-51 that the storied programs locked horns while both ranked among the Associated Press’ top 15. (Which, while very cool, may not portend well for K-State; Kansas is 8-2 in those aforementioned meetings. In fact, a top-15 Wildcat team hasn’t beaten a top-15 Kansas team since February 3, 1958.)
“You know, I don’t pull against anybody in our league,” Self continued. “I know you guys (in the media) may find that hard to believe. Unless we need them to lose for us to win the league or something, I don’t mind our league being good. I certainly don’t mind Kansas State being good. And I’ve said many times in the past, I just don’t want them to be good at our expense … I would much rather play a K-State team that’s ranked high than not play a K-State team that isn’t ranked. I think this makes for a much better atmosphere.”
And even if you don’t like the atmosphere, there’s always the subplot. Because after months of talking about the elephant in the room, it’s finally here:
Self vs. Bruce Weber, in the flesh.
The man credited with building Illinois’ 2005 NCAA runners-up (Self) vs. the man who actually steered them there (Weber). The man whose shadow loomed so large in Champaign (Self) that the man who followed him (Weber) felt compelled, at one point, to wear all black and hold a mock funeral over his predecessor’s departure.
Too much water, not enough bridges.
“Cordial,” Self offered when asked to describe his relationship with Weber, currently in his first season as the coach at K-State. “It’s fine. I have no issues with Bruce.
“I know there were some things that were said after he replaced me at Illinois. But, you know, the thing about it is — and I’ve learned this through the years — I don’t know if you can really take over a job and not, at some point in time, say some things that appears to be controversial to the previous staff. I know I probably did it with Roy (Williams, now at North Carolina). That stuff happens. It’s hard to … stand up and fight for what you know you need to do and still yet, not potentially step on a toe here or there. So (there’s) absolutely nothing about that situation that has anything to do with the ballgame (Tuesday).”
Cordial? You wonder.
And even if Self and Weber didn’t have a history, this one would still mean more to the latter, the one prodding the underdog into Manhattan’s Octagon of Doom. Weber was struggling to truly convert the purple masses until that win over then-No. 8 Florida on Dec. 22 in Kansas City. Over several levels — NCAA tourney credentials, fan perception — it was a springboard moment. A turning point.
Tuesday night has the potential to be another. In its last 39 games against Kansas as members of the Big 12, K-State is a cover-your-eyes-bad 3-36. Weber’s predecessor, Frank Martin, accounted for two of those victories.
There are few quick fixes when it comes to finding love in the Little Apple. Beating Self is one of them.
“We’re not, as players, like, making it, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s Kansas State,'” Kansas guard Travis Releford said. “It’s more of the fans and media making it (that) big of a deal. I’m sure their players are doing the same thing. It’s just us versus them. The fans are making it a bigger deal than we are.”
But make no bones about it: For once, it is that big. The biggest game in the region isn’t just the biggest game in the league; it’s the biggest game of the night. And if the Wildcats can somehow shock the world, the next one promises to be bigger still.