Conference realignment has inflicted so many casualties, it's hard to keep up. We have already lost the Nebraska-Oklahoma football game. We've lost Texas versus Texas A&M. We've lost Georgetown versus Syracuse with a conference title on the line. But the true cost of conference realignment was on display last week in Allen Fieldhouse, where then No. 3 Missouri and No. 4 Kansas played arguably the best basketball game of the season—and for perhaps the last time.
The Tigers and the Jayhawks had been feuding on the basketball court since 1907, though the fury between those two states goes back much longer. As former Kansas star Scot Pollard reminded the crowd before the game, this was a rivalry founded in bloodshed. The fighting before the Civil War—over whether Kansas should enter the Union as a free or a slave state—is referred to as Bleeding Kansas and the Border War. This was 150 years ago, but Kansas fans still invoke Quantrill's raid of Lawrence. Missouri fans still talk about John Brown's Holy War.
The hostility has been evident in the annual basketball games between the schools. The rivalry hasn't been especially close—Kansas leads 172--95—but unlike many other bitter matchups (Duke-Carolina, Kentucky-Louisville, Indiana-Purdue), this one has never lost its heat, not even for a year. Kansas lives for basketball, and a season is blighted if the Jayhawks lose to the Tigers even once, never mind twice. And Missouri fans cannot stand feeling inferior to Kansas in any way.
Starting next season, though, Missouri is going to the Southeastern Conference and Kansas will stay put in the reconfigured Big 12, and that means this rivalry is finished, though the sniping over the terms of surrender continues. Missouri fans and administrators generally seem interested in the rivalry continuing in some form—maybe with an annual game played in Kansas City, Mo. But Kansas coach Bill Self has plainly said that Kansas won't play Missouri in some kind of nonconference publicity stunt. "It wouldn't be the same," he says.
He's right. Both Kansas-Missouri games this year—and particularly last Saturday's thriller in Lawrence—were in many ways a nod to the past, when the only thing on the line was bragging rights. In Columbia on Feb. 4, Missouri came back from an eight-point deficit in the final minutes and won in stunning fashion, one of the greatest basketball wins in school history.
That game in Columbia was merely an opening act to the classic played in Allen Fieldhouse. Missouri has rarely played well in Lawrence—the Tigers have not won there since 1999—and it was generally assumed that the Tigers would get beaten soundly this time. "We weren't even supposed to be in the game," Missouri coach Frank Haith would say.
But this is a different kind of Missouri team. Though Allen Fieldhouse was louder than anyone could remember (at one point the noise reached an ear-splitting 120.2 decibels, equivalent to the roar of a jet engine), and Kansas players had said a win was more important to them than any other in their careers, Missouri players dominated and led by 19 points early in the second half.
"We were awful," Self would say of the game's first 25 minutes. The Jayhawks were awful—they missed free throws, sputtered in their offensive sets, had defensive breakdowns. And the Tigers were great. The narrative of this rivalry through the years, fair or unfair, has been that Missouri teams were tough but lacked skill, and Kansas teams were supremely talented but would back away from a fight. Well, this Missouri team is tough. But they also have three brilliant guards—Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon and Marcus Denmon—and a stunningly effective inside presence in 6'8" senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe, who makes a nation-leading 71.2% of his shots.
It turns out that this Kansas team also goes against type. Sure, the Jayhawks are talented—forward Thomas Robinson would be the favorite for player of the year if not for Kentucky's Anthony Davis, and senior guard Tyshawn Taylor is one of the quickest in the country—but they are also resilient. Elijah Johnson and Connor Teahan each hit threes. The crowd grew louder. Kansas players fed off the energy and cut a little deeper into the lead. The crowd grew louder still. Robinson, who would finish with 28 points and 12 rebounds, began to take over with his power game inside.
And Missouri went cold. The Tigers would say that the crowd and the importance of the moment was not a factor in the comeback—"The atmosphere had nothing to do with it," Missouri's Kim English said with an edge in his voice—but that's not how it looked. One thing the Missouri players, coaches and fans did seem to agree about: The officiating was affected by the crowd. Robinson scored on a three-point play with 16 seconds left, and Haith would hint that he did not see the foul. Pressey beat his man and tried a shot in the final second that Robinson swatted away. Haith would say he saw a foul on that one.
Controversy and griping about officials is part of great rivalries too. Tyshawn Taylor, who had missed two critical free throws in Kansas's loss at Missouri, made two with eight seconds left in overtime to put Kansas ahead for good. Missouri could not get off a last-second shot.
Self was ecstatic—more demonstrative than he was when his Jayhawks won the national title. He pumped his fist, lifted his arms to the crowd. He would say the main reason was that, with the victory, Kansas clinched at least a tie for the Big 12 championship—the eighth straight year the Jayhawks won the conference. "It's been so fun to watch this team grow up," he said.
But he could not deny that part of the joy was beating Missouri. "I will tell you this, I felt it," he said somewhat reluctantly. He didn't really want to admit that beating the Tigers matters more, just as Missouri people didn't really want to admit that they will miss playing Kansas. But this is the way of the world now. The schools could play in the Big 12 tournament, but after that they will be in different conferences and mostly out of each other's lives. Oh, Kansas folk will still despise Missourians, and Missouri people will still despise Kansans. We just won't get to celebrate it twice a year.
"THE ATMOSPHERE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT," MISSOURI'S ENGLISH SAID WITH AN EDGE IN HIS VOICE. BUT THAT'S NOT HOW IT LOOKED.
Photograph by JEFF JACOBSEN
O, WHAT A GAME! Fans saluted Robinson (0) as he made the most of a disputed foul call, converting his free throw to tie the game at the end of regulation.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (RELEFORD)
IN LINE WITH EXPECTATIONS Jayhawks Travis Releford (left) and Johnson ultimately were able to put the squeeze on the Tigers and Matt Pressey (middle) and avoid a rare sweep at the hands of their perennial underdog rivals.
JEFF JACOBSEN (FANS)