KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This is the gift the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament gave college basketball fans Thursday: the hope that one of the best rivalries in college sports isn’t dead. A stay of execution, if you will.
Sure, March Madness is all about stunning upsets, but on Thursday any fan of college basketball should have smiled at these predictable results: an 83-66 thrashing of Texas A&M by third-ranked Kansas, then an 88-70 dismantling of Oklahoma State by fifth-ranked Missouri.
Yes, the top two seeds in the Big 12 tournament massacred their opponents. And yes, that’s exactly what we wanted.
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Because a basketball rivalry that’s faced off 267 times in the past century will end with Missouri bolting for the SEC next season. And that rivalry deserves one more shot before it goes away, especially after two epic games this season marked by seemingly impossible home-team comebacks between two evenly matched teams.
“That’s what you come to Kansas for,” KU guard Tyshawn Taylor said of the rivalry.
And that one last dance for these two teams ought to happen in Kansas City on Saturday night. After Thursday’s blowouts here, where both teams seemed confident that they’re destined to meet again in the championship game, you couldn’t help but dream. And could it get more poetic than that? Kansas City, after all, is a place where KU and Mizzou wrestle over recruits, the fault line of a rivalry that inflames passions on both sides of the border.
Please, college basketball gods: make it happen.
These inflamed passions cannot be understated. Former KU football coach Don Fambrough helped write a children’s book on how much he hated the Tigers. And former Mizzou basketball coach Norm Stewart wouldn’t let the team bus fill up on gas in Kansas because he didn’t want to help the Kansas economy.
Sometimes, it’s a joy to hate. That’s been the case with this rivalry. Yes, some people take it too far, like the Missouri circuit judge with a framed print of Confederate guerilla William Quantrill’s sack of Lawrence: “1863, Missouri vs. Kansas, Missouri 183, Kansas 0.” (Referring, of course, to the number of Kansans killed in the raid.)
But college sports will lose something when, starting next season, this joyful hatred becomes just a memory.
The blame for this rivalry’s demise cuts both ways. Yes, it was Missouri that ended this, the oldest college sports rivalry west of the Mississippi, when it decided to follow the footsteps of Colorado, Nebraska and Texas A&M and leave the struggling Big 12. But Missouri expressed interest in continuing the Border War with Kansas by playing annual non-conference games. Like a spurned lover, Kansas denied those overtures.
You chose to leave us, KU said. And now, we don’t need you. We’ve moved on.
And in the foreseeable future, at least, KU will get its way. Unless, of course, the college basketball gods force them to meet one more time for an awkward, heated goodbye between two teams with legitimate dreams of the Final Four.
On Thursday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, the gods chose the side of all that is right and good in the world. KU shot the lights out, making 61 percent of its shots against an overmatched Texas A&M team. National player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson had 19 points and 10 rebounds. But leading the way wasn’t Robinson but instead junior guard Elijah Johnson with a career-high 26 points, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range.
“I just felt it today,” Johnson said. “Everything I let go just felt like it was going in.”
In a news conference after the game, a reporter asked Kansas head coach Bill Self to consider a question that looks a bit too far in the future.
“Just don’t do it, then,” Self interrupted, seeing the Mizzou question from a mile away.
How special would it be if this tournament ended with a Kansas-Missouri rubber match? If we all got to see it one more time before it goes away forever?
“It would be special,” Self said. “(Because) that means we win tomorrow. That’s all I’m thinking about. We got our hands full big-time tomorrow. . . . We played pretty good against Baylor both games, but we haven’t gotten their best shot yet. And I anticipate getting their best shot tomorrow. They’re so talented, it’s a joke.”
It was the answer nobody wanted. He could have said he wanted nothing more than to hand it to Mizzou one more time before they part ways. But you don’t want to jinx things, not before facing a Baylor team that could beat anyone in the country.
That same cautiousness was matched by Missouri players and coaches after their dominating win over Oklahoma State, where the Tigers’ tenacious defense helped make plenty of offense. They out-rebounded Oklahoma State by 20. Missouri went on a 24-3 run in the first half, when sophomore guard Phil Pressey got the lion’s share of his five steals and 12 assists, and then led by 25 at halftime.
“It was all about our defense,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “We were able to get some loose balls. 52 points in the paint. I hear a lot of people talk about our team, and they talk about us being a jump-shooting team. I think we can make shots, we can make 3s, but I like to think of us as a team that can put pressure on the defense and attack in the paint.”
The talk was not about Kansas, not just yet. They were still waiting on seeing the result of Iowa State-Texas matchup, which the Longhorns won. But those Jayhawks lingered in the background, even as players said they can’t look past the next game. There was talk of senior guard Kim English, who scored a game-high 27 points Thursday, and his recent comments saying he respects Kansas basketball to the fullest: “I just hate their fans.”
“It’s fun,” English told reporters after beating Oklahoma State. “Our fan bases hate each other, and that is hilarious to me. (But) the game is won on the court. If I make some people upset in the process, whatever.”
He says he’s not thinking about a potential rematch with Kansas. You can’t think about Saturday before you’ve won Friday. “We’ll worry about the championship game, God willing, when we get there,” he said.
And that’s exactly right, Kim: God willing. If the gods of college basketball are, in fact, good and righteous gods, Friday will bring a Kansas win over a hugely talented Baylor team and a Missouri win over an insurgent Texas team.
If we have one more wish that college basketball gods can grant, let it be this: that the shared hatred between these two schools — a hatred that, you might argue, helped turn two pretty good basketball teams into the two Final Four contenders nobody saw coming — will propel them to one final matchup.
Because they deserve one more shot at each other. And college basketball deserves one more glimpse at one of the sport’s finest rivalries. Just one more time, before it goes away for good.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.