MANHATTAN, Kan. — The closest thing Allen Fox can come up with is Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods in his prime, Tiger Woods at the untouchable, pre-Escalade apex.
We’re breaking down the curious case of Kansas vs. Kansas State, talking basketball, and Fox, a tennis man, cites a golf study. Between 1999 and 2006, Fox recalled, this piece showed that whenever Woods was part of a PGA event, his peers shot 0.8 strokes higher — on average — than when he wasn’t in the field.
Can one name wield that much power? Can one brand have that much sway?
“Yeah, absolutely,” says Fox, the three-time Davis Cup veteran and Wimbledon quarterfinalist turned sports psychologist. “All these things are emotional. All you’ve got to do is just add a little extra pressure, a little fear or a little extra hurdle that you have to get over, and that’s enough to swing the balance in a close contest.”
Sound a bit like a series we know?
The Jayhawks (19-4) and Wildcats (19-4) renew pleasantries Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse, their second meeting in three weeks, with first place in the Big 12 on the table once again. Kansas won the first meeting, 59-55, in Manhattan — a contest in which the Jayhawks appeared businesslike and the Wildcats seemed just plain uptight, at least at the outset.
Then again, you’d be uptight too, if you’d lost 44 of your last 47 to the one squad your supporters want most badly to see humbled. Of the 22 most recent meetings between the in-state rivals, it was the 19th to end in a Kansas victory.
But, more to Fox’s point, it was also the ninth Sunflower Showdown since 2004 to be decided by eight points or fewer. Kansas has won eight of those contests.
K-State? Just one.
“That’s hard to explain when you have good teams,” notes Bruce Weber, the Wildcats’ first-year coach. “But if you really look, how many did (Kansas) have in a row at home? They’re beating everybody (there). The road thing (in Manhattan), that was truly amazing, because you think somewhere, somebody is going to beat them … I think a lot of it is how good (the Jayhawks) are.”
Still, it’s not like the Wildcats have exactly been chopped liver, either. Since 2004, K-State has been to four NCAA Tournaments, an Elite Eight, and two NITs. Little Brother is good — good enough to hang within shouting distance of Big Brother, certainly. And yet not good enough to stop shooting himself in the foot, at some point, every stinking time they lock horns.
“There can be that mystique if you will, where it becomes, I think what we would talk about in psychology as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” offers Dr. Bob Harmison, a sports psychologist at James Madison University. “If success hasn’t happened in a long time, it’s kind of hard to kind of see it as a possibility.”
“We’re verbal creatures,” Fox continues. “When you start talking about it, you start thinking about it, and the next thing you know, you’ve got too much pressure on you. And you screw up.”
One theory that gets a lot of traction in greater Kansas City harkens back to The Tiger Woods Effect. Something about the words ‘KANSAS’ on a jersey, something about that crimson, something about that blue, gets inside the heads of the K-State roster. Something about the name on the front.
“No, I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that at all,” allows K-State guard Rodney McGruder, a senior who’s dropped five of his last six meetings against the Jayhawks. “I think it’s more of the people, you know?
“Just the people kind of psyche the players out, with how they like to hype the game up and stuff like that. We just have to go out an treat it like it’s another game.”
Which is a nice way of saying the fans — boosters, students, the lot of ‘em — put more than a little undue pressure on K-State’s players, at least as far as the Jayhawks are concerned.
Other Wildcats agree with McGruder, only they aren’t as quite as diplomatic about it. When K-State faithful cackled on Twitter late Saturday afternoon over Kansas’ third straight loss, Wildcats quarterback Daniel Sams and former K-State wideout Chris Harper got on social media and scolded segments of the Cats’ loyal base for being so obsessed with seeing the Jayhawks suffer.
“I think it’s the fans,” longtime K-State analyst Stan Weber says. “I don’t mean that in a bad way; I mean that as a compliment. You want passionate fans. Every player wants passionate fans. And the K-State fans are a passionate, inspired bunch. But they let it be known to those kids that they really like the in-state rivalry — and they really like winning the games against Kansas.”
With that, Weber segues to another sidebar, one that often gets lost in the pregame hype:
Hey, Kansas likes winning these games, too.
“Kansas has played excellent basketball, so let’s give them credit,” the analyst says. “They also care about the rivalry, and maybe moreso than most people evaluate. Most people (harp) on how K-State really wants to win this game. But we all don’t talk about how Kansas really wants to win this game, and that’s why they’re hard to sneak up on.”
And here’s the really crazy part: For once, it’s the Wildcats who likely come in with something of a mental edge, at least from a confidence standpoint. K-State hit Naismith Drive riding a four-game winning streak. The Jayhawks, preseason league favorites, have dropped three straight for the first time in eight seasons; last Wednesday’s loss at woeful TCU (RPI: 220) was a turd for the ages. When it comes to Kansas, nobody’s really certain what we’re going to get — least of all, the Jayhawks themselves.
“But it’s a mental thing: Do you believe you can win, or not? And we’ve got to get through that roadblock,” Bruce Weber says. “Something like that can shoot you a long way up in confidence.”
Or, conversely, send you crashing back to Earth. Tiger’s head is a holy mess right now. If there was ever a window for the Wildcats to shake those Jayhawk yips, brother, this is it.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com