It’s About Time Wichita State and Kansas Play Each OtherPosted by Chris Johnson on January 6th, 2014
It’s easy to see why Kansas and Wichita State should play each other. They are two of the three best basketball programs in a basketball-obsessed state. They are physically separated by less than 200 miles. They have played each other 14 times, most recently for a short run between 1989-93, and the Shockers are far better now than the teams that fell to the Jayhawks by at least 20 points in each of those meetings. Their histories – one a cultural monolith and longtime juggernaut; the other a historically mediocre Division I program – make for an excellent in-state, big brother-little brother dynamic that’s unique in college basketball. There are politicians who want these teams to play each other so badly that one went as far as to introduce a bill, later defeated, that would have forced them to play. Many others have tried to fan the flames of what could be one of the best rivalries in college basketball. Wichita State fans are vehement: They want nothing more than for their Shockers to get a shot at the Jayhawks. For crying out loud, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall once called Kansas the “chickenhawks”. I could go on, but instead of laying out the obvious, sensible reasons why Kansas and Wichita State should play each other, I’ll get into the more timely question of whether the two teams are any closer to actually playing each other.
Sadly, it seems that they are not. Bill Self has long held that a game against Wichita State would not benefit Kansas, and that his program schedules games solely that are in its best interests. He argues that a potential match-up with Wichita State – despite all the seemingly logical reasons listed above – just isn’t worth it. “This isn’t knocking Wichita State,” Self told The Kansas City Star on December 17. “But if it was best for our program, I would reach out to them about scheduling them. But it’s not. I’ve heard a lot of talk about them wanting to play us so bad; Gregg Marshall’s never contacted me about playing.” Marshall reportedly reached out to Kansas officials to propose a three-game series that would comprise one meeting at Allen Fieldhouse, one at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and one at Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita (not Wichita State’s home court). Whether Marshall has spoken directly with Self about the proposed series is beside the point, because Self doesn’t seem like he’s willing to budge. He simply doesn’t want this game to happen.
He remembers what it was like to be stuck in Marshall’s situation back when he coached at Tulsa from 1997-2000, and neither Oklahoma nor Oklahoma State would schedule his rising program. Like Marshall, Self wanted his team to be able to challenge the big boys that it shares a state with. “And they wouldn’t play,” Self told The Star. “But I didn’t blame them. And I didn’t make a big deal of it.” If that seems like a subtle shot at Marshall, it most certainly is, and it was delivered in the aftermath of something Marshall told to Fox Sports Kansas City less than a week earlier. “I’m not going to just be bought,” Marshall said. “I’m not going to go to Allen Fieldhouse for a check.”
What Marshall’s saying is that his team has built up enough clout through its recent winning ways to schedule home-and-homes with big-time programs. He’s not taking the Shockers to The Phog for a “guarantee game,” in other words. I think that’s a fair point. Wichita State has made the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons, including last season’s run to the national semifinals. It has won at least 25 games and finished no worse than second in the Missouri Valley Conference in every season since 2009-10. And the Shockers have shown no signs that they’re about to slow down any time soon. They’ve been ranked above Kansas in the AP Poll for four straight weeks (and counting) this season, topping the three total weeks between 1984 and 2012 that they had a lower ranking listed next to their name than the Jayhawks.
But for as good as Wichita State has become in recent years, Self still contends Kansas is better off not playing the Shockers. In the past, playing Wichita State would have been a lose-lose proposition for Kansas. Lose to the Shockers, and you give little brother state bragging rights and a recruiting trump card; win, and so what? But now that the Shockers have built themselves into one of the nation’s best mid-major programs, one that looks poised to compete at a high level for years to come provided Marshall hangs around, the repercussions of losing to them – real and imagined – would be both minor and ordinary. Playing Wichita State in 2014 is sort of like playing any other of the high-level non-conference foes Kansas scheduled this season. No one would be surprised if Wichita State beat the Jayhawks this year, just as no one was surprised when Colorado upended Kansas at the Coors Events Center in early December.
The Shockers’ recent rise into a mid-major power is probably the biggest reason Marshall, when asked about the potential of the teams playing each other, can say things like this on the Jim Rome Show on Friday and not sound completely delusional. “They’ve been the big brother for so long, and they just don’t want the little brother, who’s now grown up, to be able to compete with them and maybe win. They don’t want to give up that superiority in the household. If I were them, I wouldn’t play us either. That’s just my honest opinion. I would not play the game, if I were Bill Self or Bruce Weber.”
This seems like a stalemate that’s not going to be broken any time soon. Wichita State fans and, presumably, the rest of the college basketball universe, want to see the Shockers play Kansas, but if Self is against the idea of scheduling them, it’s not going to happen. Simple as that. It’s unfortunate, but until Kansas’ future Hall of Fame coach changes his tune, the most we can do is hope these two teams meet in the NCAA Tournament. Do us a favor, Selection Committee. Seed Kansas and Wichita State in the same region. You must make this game happen.
Because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to otherwise.