In a back corner of The Beacon, a weathered brick diner on Douglas Avenue, they drink dark, black coffee and chatter about the local undefeated basketball team.
This is the kind of greasy spoon where they serve omelettes with one-word descriptions and the breakfast menu is available all day. Today’s debate is about old as the restaurant’s recipe for country fried potatoes.
“They won’t play us,” says a local businessman named Mark, taking a sip and letting his words hang in the cool March air. “And that’s fine. The Wheatshockers will just keep winning.”
The ‘They’ in this conversation is the University of Kansas, the blue-blood basketball empire located a couple of hours up the road. And the Wheatshockers are Wichita State, a college basketball David and the first team ever to enter the NCAA Tournament with a 34-0 record.
“That just gives you more fuel for your fire to prove them wrong,” says Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, the gate-keeper to the “play angry” kingdom.
As the NCAA Tournament begins this week, the state of Kansas is ground zero for the bracket’s most intriguing possibilities. From a state of fewer than three million people, three public schools — KU, Wichita State and K-State — will open the tournament Friday in St. Louis.
This is a cultural story — one rooted in power and status, divisions and connections and long-held grievances. Sometimes all three at the same time.
Kansas is KANSAS, the state school with the $93 million athletic budget, three NCAA basketball championships and the venerable ties to the history of the sport. Wichita State is the anti-establishment underdog, the school of 14,000 that shook up college basketball with a Final Four run last season and a current No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.
(The Jayhawks are, ahem, a No. 2 seed in the South.)
And then there’s the Midwest’s No. 9 seed, Kansas State, which since 2006 has enjoyed some sustained success, including a share of the Big 12 regular-season title last year.
The Wildcats could face Wichita State on Sunday in the round of 32, but inside The Beacon, that would be something of a consolation prize for the lifers stabbing at their eggs. KU hasn’t played Wichita State in 21 years, and indifference, after all, can be the most painful sign of disrespect.
So in the days before the schools head for St. Louis, Mark the businessman fidgets with his coffee mug.
A reporter politely asks permission to identify him with his first and last name. This isn’t war or politics, the reporter says.
It’s just college basketball.
“Can’t do it,” Mark says, smiling. “It’d be too bad for business. This is a divided city right now.”
The same can be said of the state.
The road from Koch Arena in Wichita to Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence stretches 161 miles, give or a take a few coordinates on the GPS.
On a quiet morning, you can make the drive in a little more than two hours, past Dean Smith’s birthplace in Emporia, through the rolling Flint Hills, past the small Kansas towns that have produced Division I stars.
The route takes you from a city that’s home to the most Kansas state high school basketball titles to a town where James Naismith, inventor of the game, once lived.
On Thursday, as if to underscore basketball’s importance across the state, Gov. Sam Brownback proclaimed Friday “Cradle of Basketball Day” in Kansas.
This is basketball territory, plain and simple. But the relationship between Wichita State and Kansas’ two other Division I schools remains complicated. There are Shockers fans in Wichita who follow KU, and others who root for K-State.
There are also lifelong devotees on both sides, fans who wear the wounds from years of well, not playing. There are even Jayhawks on the Wichita State television broadcasts.
“I’m right in the middle of this,” says Mark Ewing, a former KU player who serves as the executive producer of Shockers TV.
From personal observations, interaction with fans and knowledge of ratings in the markets he’s worked, Ewing believes that basketball allegiance in the city of Wichita is 40 percent Shockers, 35 percent K-State and 25 percent KU.
Then there’s the rest of the state. In Topeka, KU gets the slight call, 50 percent to K-State’s 45 percent, with the Shockers trailing at 5 percent.
“The farther west you go, it’s about K-State and less about KU and Wichita State,” Ewing said.
The division isn’t always neat and tidy, though.
Dan Harty grew up in Lyndon, near Topeka, but came to Wichita in 1995 to attend school and never left. He nearly cried when Wichita State won a league title in 2006. But he’s a Jayhawks fan, too, a dichotomy that he struggles to explain.
He has no such trouble explaining the tension between Wichita State and KU.
“I have season tickets to KU football,” Harty says, “but it’s kind of odd: I really almost dislike KU basketball right now, because they’re the big, bad entity.
“And we’re kind of the little guy still.”
When Mark Turgeon arrived in Wichita in the spring of 2000, he was already facing two battles.
Turgeon was a Topeka native who played for KU coach Larry Brown in the 1980s and served as an assistant under former Jayhawks coach Roy Williams. Some Wichita State fans were skeptical because of Turgeon's KU roots.
Turgeon was taking over a once-proud program that had recorded just two winning seasons in 11 years. He could still remember those tough Shockers teams of the 1980s — gritty squads led by Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston and Xavier McDaniel.
For Turgeon, the two battles folded into one.
If he could win in Wichita, even the die-hards wouldn’t care where he was from.
“I knew they had a passionate fan base,” Turgeon says. “I knew it was a great city. But it was nowhere near the level it was at when I was a player at Kansas. So we had some work to do.”
The groundwork for the modern Wichita State program was laid during those years under Turgeon, and Marshall would only strengthen that foundation after taking over in 2007.
Turgeon built the team into a contender in the Missouri Valley Conference, and fans and alumni invested in the Shockers’ success. Wichita business mogul Charles Koch lavished the primary donation for a $25 million renovation at dated Levitt Arena — soon to be renamed Koch Arena — in the early 2000s.
“He said, ‘A new building is just bricks and mortar; it’s the people inside that make it go,’” Turgeon recalls. “He said, ‘I believe in you, so I’m going to invest.’
“I’ll never forget that.”
But while Turgeon was turning the program into a more appealing destination, he butted into the same old roadblock at the Wichita city border. All that work, and he still couldn’t get KU on the Shockers’ schedule.
He remembers calling his old boss, Williams, hoping to play host to KU when Wichita State christened its overhauled arena. The discussion went nowhere. He would later have some informal talks with current coach Bill Self during Self’s first years at KU, but those never progressed, either.
“I’ll speak for Bill and say it’s probably not in Kansas’ best interest to play Wichita,” Turgeon says. “But when I was there, I certainly wanted to.”
Today, Turgeon is the head coach at Maryland, and it has been 21 seasons since KU and Wichita State last met in a college basketball game. In the past 108 years, in fact, the schools have played just 14 times. K-State, meanwhile, played Wichita State 19 times from 1986 to 2003, but even those two haven’t played since.
For many fans in this city, particularly those who align with the Shockers, this is the type of sore that can fester.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” says Joe Auer, the head basketball at Wichita Heights High, a school with former players on both the KU and Wichita State programs. “There’s a little bit of a chip on the shoulder in this community.”
In the mid 1980s and early 1990s, the schools played each other nine times in 10 years. The Jayhawks won eight of those games, often by double digits. The Shockers won just once, in Turgeon’s senior season of 1987.
These days, KU coach Bill Self would prefer to schedule nonconference games against high-profile opponents in places where KU can expand its brand. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, in turn, has said he won’t come to Allen Fieldhouse for a one-off — he’d only play KU as part of a home-and-home arrangement.
For now, the Shockers’ program is ascending, but there’s still little incentive for KU to play Wichita State.
After all, what if the Jayhawks lost?
“I think it was great for Wichita State,” Turgeon says of the old series. “I don’t think it was that good for Kansas. They played nine times; in Wichita, they just remember the one (that the Shockers won).”
In the spring of 1981, KU coach Ted Owens received a record album from some friends at Wichita State.
When the music starting playing, the sound came to him immediately.
“It was music from the actual ‘Battle of New Orleans,’ Owens says.
Just weeks earlier, KU had lost to Wichita State in the Sweet 16 in New Orleans, the first time the two schools had played one another since 1955.
More than 30 years later, Owens can still remember the build-up to that game; both teams played their first two rounds in Wichita, the Shockers’ fans chanting “Bring on Kansas” after clinching a spot in the Sweet 16. It was the first NCAA Tournament matchup between Kansas teams since K-State defeated Wichita State in 1964 en route to the Final Four.
Owens, now retired in his mid-80s and living in Oklahoma, has trouble remembering why the schools didn’t play each other then — why talks with former Wichita State coach Harry Miller never went anywhere.
But the following sounds familiar, even 30 years later.
“I can’t really answer that,” Owens said. “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.
“It was just one of those things: Why don’t they play now?”
While KU hasn’t played the Shockers since 1993 and isn’t interested in a future game, K-State is at least open to the possibility. Also, the Wildcats have played two games in Wichita the last three seasons, though not against the Shockers.
In the spring of 1981, it took an NCAA Tournament bracket to compel KU and Wichita State to step onto the same basketball court. Three decades later, it may take the same twist of fate.
On Thursday afternoon, in a hallway inside the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, coaches from all three Kansas schools stopped to pose for a photograph.
“What’s up, Mr. Marshall?” Self said, patting the shoulder of the Wichita State coach.
For a moment, Marshall was flanked by Self and K-State coach Bruce Weber.
“I gotta stand next to Marshall?” Self joked as the cameras started to click.
All three men smiled, perhaps a little uneasily, the basketball arena still as divided as their home state.The Star’s Blair Kerkhoff contributed to this report