Please pay close attention because we are about to describe one of the rarest events in modern sports. This is like spotting Bigfoot, or maybe like hearing a good Nickelback song.
We are firsthand witnesses to an authentic moment between an athlete and a small crowd of reporters.
This is shortly after Kansas’ 75-56 win over New Mexico State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 64 on Friday. A few reporters are talking with Brannen Greene, who like all of his KU teammates has gone through the program’s media training, when out comes something we all probably assumed was true but would never expect to hear articulated out loud to the cameras and notebooks.
“We act like we don’t pay attention to social media,” he says. “But we see it, and our feeds blow up when people talk about it.”
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He is referring to KU playing Wichita State at 4:15 p.m. Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16. The matchup is a long time coming, KU uninterested in scheduling the Shockers in the regular season, and it is not an exaggeration to call this one of the most anticipated college basketball games in the state’s history.
Depending on your perspective, this game has been the talk of the state since the brackets came out on Sunday or since Roy Williams quit scheduling the Shockers more than two decades ago.
The thinking from KU has always been that it has nothing to gain, everything to lose, so this is Wichita State’s big shot — but the narratives fall apart with even a little examination.
Most obviously, Wichita State is really good. The Shockers beat Indiana 81-76 on Friday, and when they face Kansas on Sunday the only players with Final Four experience will be Wichita State’s.
The Shockers went 35-1 last year, their season ending in an enthralling round-of-32 game against Kentucky that was at least as intense as the Kansas game will be. The Jayhawks are just a two-point favorite against Wichita, which is a smaller line than when they played Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament championship game.
But the more important point here is that this is not a rivalry, at least not in any traditional way. There is no history here, neither long ago or more recently. Nobody on either team was out of diapers the last time these teams faced each other. The players know each other. They’re friendly.
Last year, each team had a Wiggins brother. Greene worked a summer camp with Wichita star Ron Baker. KU’s Perry Ellis and Wichita State’s Evan Wessel played together at Wichita Heights High. Conner Frankamp transferred from KU to Wichita State. KU’s Frank Mason and Wichita’s Rashard Kelly played together growing up in Virginia. They like each other. They text often.
Any added intensity comes from geography, and fans, and a recent push from Wichita and media in the state for these programs to play each other.
“We’ve never played them,” Greene says. “So there’s not much of a rivalry there.”
That’s not just KU talking, either.
“I don’t call it a rivalry,” WSU’s Tekele Cotton says. “I’m pretty sure in a rivalry the teams play each other often.”
This is a strange spot, then, two groups of basketball players friendly with each other but pushed to be something approximating a rivalry by outside forces that have nothing to do with them.
So, a game that already would be the most important of the season for either team is infused with just a little extra something that Kelly describes as “personal” for some fans.
In one sense, that means guys saying there will be even more attention to detail than normal. They haven’t played each other, but proximity and ESPN have a way of spreading familiarity so even with short prep time there shouldn’t be many secrets.
In another sense, it means that the game could turn on something other than strategy.
We can talk about Wichita State’s masterful guards and ball-handling, about the way the Shockers defend well, and that the only teams good enough to knock them out of the tournament the last two years are a national champion and a runner-up.
Or we can talk about Kansas’ vastly improved defense, about Mason’s emergence and Perry Ellis’ knee and Bill Self’s genius and whether hitting nine of 13 three-pointers on Friday was a sign of getting hot or being given open looks.
But if the energy produced through fans and media seeps into the game the way some players on each team say it might, then the game could turn more on which side handles that better.
Kansas played the toughest schedule in the country and has shown a remarkable ability to make the most important plays. But, playing opposite the historical power, the Shockers don’t fit type of the plucky mid-major, no matter how hard that narrative is promoted.
This is a game that will be a momentary national curiosity and a lasting local talking point for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. It is not a rivalry, but it is also not an empty matchup.
It will be a memory, either way. A memory that will be decided by two groups of young men — united by age and talent, divided by uniform, and without any inherent reason to dislike the other side — who understand they’re expected to decide something just a little bit bigger than a typical NCAA Tournament game.