Upon first glance, the three men standing in the bright spring sunshine outside the CenturyLink Center appeared indecisive.
They wore bright yellow Wichita State gear. But around their necks were blue shirts, worn like scarves, emblazoned with the letters “ROCK CHALK.”
What are they going to do Sunday, when they take their seats to watch Kansas and Wichita State play a basketball game for the first time in more than two decades? And in the NCAA Tournament with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line to boot?
Their answer was a tad surprising, but it embodied the feeling of many Wichita State fans.
“Gotta be a Shocker fan on Sunday,” said Jeff Clark of Wichita, who was even wearing a blue KU hat on top of his yellow Shockers ball cap.
“They’re the underdog and they don’t get enough respect from the Jayhawk fans.”
Maybe that was the motive for the dual gear: make sure these teams actually play each other.
Despite campuses located about a three-hour drive apart, Kansas and Wichita State have only faced off 14 times since the teams started playing basketball 100-plus years ago. A 1981 meeting in the NCAA Tournament — the only other time besides Sunday the teams have played in that setting— spurred the creation of a regular-season series in the 1980s, but the last game was in 1993, a 103-54 KU victory in Lawrence.
Kansas leads the all-time series 12-2. The only Wichita State wins were in that 1981 tourney game, a 66-65 victory in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals dubbed “The Battle of New Orleans,” and a 54-49 win in 1987 in Wichita.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has said he has tried to schedule the Jayhawks, but KU coach Bill Self has maintained a series with the Shockers isn’t in the best interests of his program.
Self, and KU fans, point to the Jayhawks’ nonconference schedule, which was rated as the most difficult in the country this season.
“Our strength of schedule is already really tough, so I don’t know if we have room for them,” said Zach Roush, a KU fan from Topeka who was at the games Friday with two classmates from Hayden High School.
Wichita State fans have a comeback to that.
“They’re just scared is all,” said Tim Clark of Denver, Jeff’s brother and one of the three fans in dual colors Friday.
Tim’s son Xander agreed.
“They can’t handle Ron Baker,” he said, referring to the Shockers’ junior guard who scored 15 points Friday — and who wasn’t recruited by KU.
As Friday’s games progressed, so did the fans. When KU tipped off in the late morning, Wichita State fans mostly occupied the lower level behind what was to be their bench in the next game. Across from them was a small but loud pocket of New Mexico State fans. Indiana fans were congregated across the court from the Jayhawks’ bench … and KU fans were, well, mostly everywhere else in the building.
But there were also pockets of yellow that became more prominent as the seconds ticked away on No. 2 seed KU’s 75-56 victory over 15th-seeded New Mexico State and No. 7 seed Wichita State tipped off against 10th-seeded Indiana.
The Hoosiers took a three-point lead into halftime, but an interesting phenomenon occurred as the Shockers surged ahead in the second. When Wichita State fans rose, several KU fans joined in the cheering.
“I was throwing up the ‘Shocker’ (hand sign),” said Parker Hilbert, one of the three Topeka Hayden classmates. “I want to see the matchup. It would be exciting to see both Kansas teams going at it.”
One KU fan sitting in the second row at center court jumped up after the Shockers took a 63-57 lead with about 8 minutes to play on a Zach Brown dunk. Several others wearing KU blue in the sea of yellow behind the Shockers’ bench could be seen clapping along to the pep band.
The buzzer sounded and Wichita State moved on with an 81-76 victory. The matchup is on, but should it have happened sooner?
“It’s about time,” said Brent Combs of Wichita, who was wearing Kansas gear and left the arena with three Wichita State fans he sat with during the games. Although one of those fans, Geoffrey Tucker of Wichita, pulled up his Shockers shirt to reveal a KU jersey and said he’d cheer for the Jayhawks on Sunday.
Chuck Smith of Omaha also answered the should-KU-play-Wichita question, an answer Self might not like.
Before Friday’s games, Chuck and his wife, Julie, walked into the arena wearing Creighton gear. Chuck said he wouldn’t cheer for Kansas, but when asked if they would pull for their former Missouri Valley rival, Wichita State, Julie said she was cheering for Indiana.
“We think Kansas and Wichita State should play in Kansas,” Chuck said, “and not in Omaha.”