It is a rivalry that does not exist until it does, a basketball series that has become more known for dead periods than anything else.
Kansas and Wichita State, two schools separated by 161 miles of highways and rolling farmland, first played a basketball game more than 100 years ago. Yet they have faced off just 14 times — and not since 1993 at Allen Fieldhouse.
If you are a resident of of Kansas — and, depending on your point of reference — this is either a good thing, a bad thing or not a thing at all. But as the NCAA Tournament begins this week, this much is certain:
The series that isn’t could be back on.
If No. 2 seed Kansas defeats No. 15 New Mexico State, and No. 7 seed Wichita State handles No. 10 seed Indiana, the two schools will meet up on Sunday at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
It would be a battle of blue blood vs. new blood, the state’s flagship institution pitted against the university from the state’s biggest city. A Kansas vs. Wichita State matchup would spark local tensions, command national attention and become one of the most anticipated games of the tournament’s early rounds.
And all of this raises the question: Why haven’t the teams played in 22 years? The answer is both complicated — fused with angst built over the eras — and also very obvious, a sentiment perhaps best expressed by Kansas coach Bill Self.
“This isn’t knocking Wichita State,” Self told The Star in late 2013. “But if it was best for our program, I would reach out to them about scheduling them. But it’s not.”
In Self’s view, the nonconference schedule is a precious commodity. Kansas officials strategically schedule games in fertile recruiting grounds and in big markets where the Jayhawks can expand their brand. During the Self era, Kansas has played nonconference games in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and the Bay Area, among other places. In the coming years, they will travel to San Diego State and UNLV, tapping into West Coast markets.
Self, meanwhile, sees little value in a game against Wichita State, and this is where it becomes slightly more complicated. Part of the reason for this hesitancy is the idea that Kansas would have nothing to gain — and everything to lose.
“I’ll speak for Bill and say it’s probably not in Kansas’ best interest to play Wichita,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, a former Wichita State coach and Kansas guard, told The Star last year. “But when I was (at Wichita State), I certainly wanted to (play KU).”
Even in the early years, though, the series was a sporadic endeavor. The first game was played Dec. 18, 1908, in Wichita, and Kansas rolled 65-15. The two schools wouldn’t square off for another 33 seasons.
Kansas scored double-digit victories in Wichita in 1941 and 1942, and in 1955, the Jayhawks came to town for the dedication game of WU Field House. The matchup pitted Wichita State coach Ralph Miller, a Kansas grad, against his mentor, Phog Allen, and the Jayhawks left town with a 56-55 victory.
Cue another 26 years of waiting.
Ted Owens, who coached Kansas from 1964 to 1983, told The Star last year that he had a difficult time remembering why Kansas and Wichita State never played in those years. Owens, now retired and living in Oklahoma, said he had some talks with then-Wichita State coach Harry Miller, who coached the Shockers from 1971 to 1978, but a game never materialized.
“I can’t really answer that,” Owens said last March. “I don’t think anybody ever told me not to play them, and I don’t think anybody ever told Harry not to play us.
Finally, Kansas and Wichita State met up in the 1981 NCAA Tournament, a Midwest Regional semifinal at the Superdome in New Orleans. The Shockers emerged victorious in the final minutes. Thousands of T-shirts flooded the state, commemorating the “Battle of New Orleans,” and two years later, Wichita State athletic director Lew Perkins and KU athletic director Monte Johnson agreed to a four-year series.
Kansas would win the first three contests, while Wichita State would score a 54-49 victory over Kansas at the Roundhouse on Jan. 6, 1987. One season earlier, then-Kansas coach Larry Brown had weighed in on the series, saying: “It’s stupid for us not to keep playing Wichita.”
That sentiment would change during the early years of Roy Williams, who racked up five straight blowout victories over Wichita State from 1990-93. The Shockers had fallen on hard times. Williams insisted on a two-for-one series, with at least two games at Allen Fieldhouse for every one in Wichita. The Shockers said no.
Two decades later, the Wichita State program is back in the top 25. Coach Gregg Marshall has led Wichita State to a Final Four in 2013 and an undefeated regular season last year. But back in Lawrence, the idea of rekindling the series is still a nonstarter.
Turgeon, who laid the groundwork for the Shockers’ revival in the early 2000s, remembers calling his old boss Williams, hoping to play host to Kansas when Wichita State christened a remodeled of Koch Arena. That went nowhere. He later had some informal talks with Self during his first years at Kansas, but those never progressed, either.
“I think it was great for Wichita State,” Turgeon said of the series. “I don’t think it was that good for Kansas. They played nine times; in Wichita, they just remember the one.”
In recent years, Self has expressed similar sentiments, much to the frustration of Marshall, who has looked for ways to build his program’s strength of schedule.
“The one thing about being in coaching a long time and coaching at different schools and different levels is the fact that you understand that coaches schedule what’s in the best interest of their program,” Self said in late 2013. “Nowhere does it say that they are obligated to schedule in the best interest of somebody else’s program that wants to play them.”
All of this, of course, has led to the following irony. Wichita State finished this season 28-4, won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship and was slapped with a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. One reason: The Shockers’ resume lacked wins against top competition.
Now it could all change this weekend. Is the state of Kansas ready for the Battle of Omaha?