OMAHA, Neb. — You will ask, and justifiably: How can teams that haven’t played since 1993 be, well, rivals? Isn’t a rivalry supposed to be steeped in tradition and dipped in a fondue of classic moments, wrapped in swirls of hate?
Kansas and Missouri are rivals, you say, because of what they were.
Kansas and Wichita State are, too.
But it’s because of what they aren’t.
Despite being 161 miles apart, the two longtime basketball-first schools have met on the same court only 14 times, and — until Sunday’s third-round NCAA Tournament matchup at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center — not once since January 1993. Roy Williams’ Jayhawks romped to a 103-54 laugher, and that was that.
Things are different now.
Since 2009, the Shockers, 81-76 winners over Indiana on Friday, have been to one Final Four, the same as KU. Since 2009, Wichita has averaged 29.2 victories a season; KU, 30.5.
Kansas fans see a Wichita tussle as a potential public relations headache, nothing to gain and everything to lose. Marcia says Cindy wants to play Marcia only because Cindy is good again. Cindy says Marcia doesn’t want to play Cindy because of the same reason. The dog chases its tail, and the circles never intersect.
Unless, of course, Indianapolis intervenes. New Mexico State, the 15 seed in the Midwest, went quietly Friday. The Hoosiers, the 10 seed, went noisily.
"It’s a pride thing," Wichita coach Gregg Marshall mused outside his locker room, when asked about Sunday’s matchup. "It’s not going to cure cancer. It’s not going to end world hunger. It’s just a basketball game that people have a lot of interest in in our region. And now they get to see it."
It’s funny: For two schools that act as if they’re worlds apart — KU (27-8) in the Big 12, Wichita (29-4) in the Missouri Valley — several strands connect both institutions. The athletic directors at both schools are friendly and cordial, even if their respective coaches sometimes aren’t. Former Shockers guard Nick Wiggins is the older brother of ex-KU one-and-done Andrew Wiggins, creating something of a small bridge of mutual friends. A handful of Wichita players, including former Shox standout Cleanthony Early and current shooting guard Ron Baker, even sat near the KU bench during the Jayhawks’ home victory over Baylor back on Jan. 20, 2014.
Wessel played AAU ball with KU’s Evan Manning (son of ex-Jayhawks great Danny) and Tyler Self (son of coach Bill), and on three state title teams with Perry Ellis at Wichita Heights High School. Now the two will probably be trying to box the other former teammate out in the post Sunday.
"I don’t try to get concerned with all the (political) details," said Wessel, who chipped in five rebounds against the Hoosiers.
"Obviously, there’s a bunch of stuff that goes into scheduling, stuff like that. I know (in) other states, they make each other play, but obviously, we don’t have that in Kansas. So maybe that’s part of it. It’s just money, too. Whether it is or isn’t, you can’t control that."
Do you understand why KU wouldn’t do it, why Marcia feels it’s a no-win situation? Let Cindy beat you on the court, it’ll be up for discussion at every Thanksgiving dinner.
"That’s their side to it," Wessel countered. "And I guess they’re entitled to that.
"Obviously, being from Wichita and playing at Wichita State, I’m a little biased. It’ll get settled on Sunday."
Shox forward Shaq Morris knows KU’s Wayne Selden and Ellis from the AAU circuit. Wichita forward Rashard Kelly, a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, grew up an hour or so north of KU point guard Frank Mason, who hails from Petersburg, Virginia. And so on.
"I’ll probably say it’s more focused to detail because you’re playing to advance to the next round, but you’re also playing for your community," Kelly said. "It’s like a backyard battle … Wichita versus Lawrence right now."
Wichita versus the world. When you get right down to brass tacks, Sunday is about the fans. Oh, don’t get us wrong, it’s about the media, too, a narrative that goes down easier and juicier than a bacon double cheeseburger. But it’s mostly about the fans, fans who want answers to age-old questions, fans who have always wondered — especially over the last three or four years — what would happen if the stars ever would finally align.
"Because they live right here," Marshall explained. "They live and they go to work and they go to school. And some people are KU fans, some people are K-State fans. Some people are Oklahoma and Oklahoma State fans. (Or) Nebraska fans. (Or) even Creighton fans in Wichita. That’s just the way it is. Everybody goes to their different schools and whatnot.
"Just like they talk about the (1981 NCAA tourney) game in New Orleans (between Wichita and KU), ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ it’ll be ‘The Battle of Omaha.’ And the last time we played (in ’93), it was ‘The Behind Kicking (of) Lawrence.’"
Still, you can’t crack the knuckles for Kansas if you don’t take care of business against the Hoosiers (20-14), another basketball blueblood, first. Young and frisky, Tom Crean’s Indiana crew likes to play fast, lightning fast, occasionally to its detriment. The plan was to quick-strike, jab, jab, jab. And some seven minutes in, the Shockers’ bench appeared to be struggling to catch its collective breath.
Things leveled off a little more a short while after that, although the iron still proved a fickle mistress. The drive was kind to the Shockers early, but the kick wasn’t: As point guard Fred VanVleet knifed through the Hoosiers for 19 first-half points, Baker, his backcourt mate, was two for nine from the floor over the first 20 minutes, and 0 for four beyond the arc.
Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, conversely, nestled right into a comfort zone, draining three of his first four 3-point attempts and helping the No. 10 seed hold control of the first half more or less from the outset. You may beat the Hoosiers, but you won’t win many games of H-O-R-S-E against ’em: IU came into the weekend ranked seventh nationally in 3-point field-goal percentage (40.4), 12th in field-goal makes per contest (27.2) and 19th in terms of effective field-goal percentage (54.6).
VanVleet carried the water and Baker (seven out of eight from the stripe in the second half) closed the door but, all told, the afternoon turned into one of the Shockers’ most balanced efforts of the season, with a game-clinching layup from off-guard Tekele Cotton with 40 seconds left that put Wichita up four, and big jolts off the bench from forwards Morris (eight points) and Zach Brown (11 points, eight boards).
But while that group offered up the sweat, power forward Darius Carter donated blood and tears to the cause. Roughly 20 seconds into the half, the 6-foot-7 Ohio native took a shot to the mouth on a Baker layup, a blow that knocked his right front tooth back into his mouth, pushed back like a milk bottle at a carnival booth.
"It was kind of freaking me out," Carter recalled. "I felt it with my tongue, and it was waaaaay back."
Marshall’s Shockers don’t just play angry. They play through egregious pain, too.
"When they had to put it back in place," Carter recalled, "it was about a 12 (on a pain scale of 10). It wasn’t fun."
The tooth was shoved back into place, only to come loose again after he was struck in the mouth. The Wichita forward said another blow from a Hoosiers player actually straightened it pretty much back to its original position:
"I think (the pressure is) pretty even," Marshall said.
"We’ve got pressure because if we don’t play well, they’re going to beat us. And we know that. So we’ve got to play well and we’ve got to rebound with them and they’ve got some tremendous athletes and they play really hard and, hopefully, we can take some things and try to take them out of some things. And they’re going to be doing the same thing."
For the fans in blue and fans in gold scurrying around downtown Omaha, the party, the smack, the badgering, figures to run through the weekend. For the Shockers’ coaches and players, though, it was brief. Loud but brief, a cacophony of joyous howls from the locker room that could be heard 50 to 60 feet away from the closed front door. Wichita State athletic director Eric Sexton was one of the first to emerge from the din.
"They’re excited," he observed. A pause. "But not satisfied."
With that, Sexton turned on his heel and walked down the hall. Beaming.