With the Sunflower Showdown finally here, it’s amazing how alike KU, Shox really are
OMAHA, Neb. — Evan Wessel was once recruited by Kansas. Honest.
To play safety.
"But I always just wanted to play basketball in college, and my heart was always with basketball," Wichita State’s junior forward said Saturday. "And I’m glad they offered me the opportunity, but I’m glad with my decision (to be) where I’m at and happy going forward."
And here was the Jayhawks’ latest future NBA lottery pick, freshman wing guard Kelly Oubre, another in a long line of basketball millionaires:
"It’s definitely a game that we have to show up and show the world what we’re capable of. We have to send a message. Not necessarily to the fans of Kansas, but to the world, that we’re attacking this thing full-force."
Welcome, America, to the Chip-On-My-Shoulder Bowl, presented by the Id, the Ego and the Superego.
Second-seeded Kansas (27-8) meets seventh-seeded Wichita State (29-4) Sunday in a third-round NCAA Tournament matchup at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, the first time the in-state programs have met on a men’s basketball court in 22 years. They’re like long-lost family members who exchange cards and pleasantries over the holidays but seem to pass one another, over the decades, like ships in the Prairie night.
(For the record, though, it’s not that one side of the family hasn’t tried: Shockers coach Gregg Marshall has said umpteen times that he has approached Kansas about an ongoing series for a while; KU counterpart Bill Self usually politely dismisses the concept, then changes the subject.)
Wichita State: Nick Wiggins; Kansas: Andrew Wiggins.
Kansas: Outgrew the Missouri Valley Conference a century ago; Wichita State: Wondering in the 21st century if they’re starting to do the same.
Wichita State: Doesn’t play football; Kansas: Doesn’t play football.
OK, we kid, we kid.
It’s different worlds, different leagues, different budgets, different stratas. But here they are, both mashed together on the same stage, both having to walk through the same door in order to dance on to Cleveland, chasing the same prize: The privilege of getting their skulls bashed in by Kentucky.
But what was interesting Saturday afternoon, amid all the hype, all the cameras, all the microphones and questions and connections and narratives and backyard brawls, was just how much these two programs, separated by 161 miles and several million dollars — Kansas’ recruiting budget in 2012-13: $514,676; Wichita: $142,015, according to a recent piece by USAToday.com — have in common.
Defense. Fast, smart, fearless point guards. Top-flight (and well paid) coaches with savvy staffs and support crews. Ridiculously loud home courts. Insanely passionate fan bases. Pride. The underdog angle.
Actually, especially the underdog angle.
"People kind of counted us out (at this tourney) a little bit," Oubre said. "They don’t realize that we have one of the best coaches in America.
"They just think that Kansas — they kind of, sort of, cast us out as outcasts. But we’re here to stay."
Wait, wait, wait. You went somewhere?
"We’re going to give our A game every time we step on the court," the 6-foot-7 guard continued. "We have had mess-ups in the past. But that’s in the past. We’ve only learned from there and gotten better from them."
The rosters, size and prep pedigrees are different, but the mantras, mindsets and statistics really aren’t. At all.
Both programs pride themselves on stops, on turning defense into quick, easy buckets — the Shockers topped Indiana in fast-break points 8-0 and in points off turnovers 16-7; KU outscored New Mexico State in fast-break points 6-2.
Wichita State: 37th nationally in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage (45.4.); Kansas: 15th (44.3). Point man Fred VanVleet driving the train on one side; Frank Mason III at the stick on the other.
"We ask them to play both ends," Marshall said of the two coaches on the floor, one of a handful of chess matches in play Sunday. "We don’t say, just, you know, score your points (and) relax on defense. That’s not in our DNA, that’s not in their DNA. We know that we have to play both ends to give us a good chance to win."
Maybe that’s why Self doesn’t want to schedule the Shockers. It’s like dating someone who’s just a little too much like … well, yourself.
"Yeah, (former Kansas guard) Kirk Hinrich was my guy when I was younger," Wichita guard Ron Baker said. "Aaron Miles, Keith Langford, those (KU) guys were really fun to watch."
You upset when Syracuse knocked them out during the 2003 Final Four?
"Yeah, I went to bed pretty pissed off," Baker replied. "Yeah, I was pretty upset."
He was in third grade. Or second. Rage blurs the calendar somewhat.
"I remember walking to my room," Baker recalled. "And I was on the top bunk and my brother was on the bottom. And he told me to shut up a couple times."
Because you were saying …
"Things a third-grader should not say. Yeah. Just (being) upset is what I remember."
And finally, after all these years, those passing ships meet. There’s Baker, a young man in his basketball prime, a hero on playgrounds now the way Hinrich and Miles and Langford were then.
Baker, who’s going to send some third-graders in Kansas to bed Sunday saying things that a third-grader shouldn’t say. Same as it ever was.