Tyshawn Taylor wore “Beats by Dr. Dre” headphones and walked slowly, hauling a bag on his shoulder. A few paces ahead, Thomas Robinson moved toward a pack of blue warmups and equipment bags.
It was just before 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, and the Kansas team bus had arrived to a loading area adjacent to the CenturyLink Center, site of Friday’s NCAA Tournament games. Moments later, the Jayhawks began to weave their way through the inside of the arena, arriving to the front of a locker room with two blue signs posted outside:
One read: “MISSOURI LOCKER ROOM”
The other: “KANSAS LOCKER ROOM”
“I grabbed Tyshawn,” said KU junior guard Travis Releford, who missed the second sign. “And said, ‘We’re in the wrong locker room!’ ”
So this was Omaha on the day before Kansas and Missouri began their respective NCAA Tournament runs. Missouri and Kansas shared a locker room, the Tigers arriving in the late morning, the Jayhawks pulling up a few hours later. The front page of the local newspaper dedicated its tournament preview edition to Kansas and Missouri — and a weekend-long (and most definitely longer) “Border Cold War.” And all the while, both teams responded with subtle disdain packaged as apathy.
“Couldn’t care less,” Mizzou senior Kim English said.
“I hope they are enjoying the weather,” Taylor said.
Kansas and Missouri won’t meet this weekend. They wouldn’t play next week, either. Even if the college basketball apocalypse hits the Midwest, and both teams reach the Final Four, they wouldn’t even play then. There’s only one way KU and Mizzou are stepping on the same floor at the same time again this season. Yeah,that game.
“It would be the most epic championship game ever,” said Alex Franklin, a Missouri senior in the Tigers’ traveling pep band.
Franklin said this in the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn, just blocks from the CenturyLink Center. The words spoken in the locker room may have been measured and businesslike, but outside, on the streets of Omaha, none of the same rules applied.
A black-and-gold Mizzou flag hung from a window at the corner of 10th and Dodge streets. Down the street, KU fans exited Farrell’s Sports Bar. And dozens and dozens of fans wearing familiar colors descended on the bars and restaurants in the Old Market. It was as if a family arrived at a picturesque vacation destination — only to see that their annoying neighbors had picked the same resort.
“We can’t get away from them,” said Levi Coolley, a 33-year-old from Columbia.
“The hatred has never waned,” said Jay Newland, a 36-year-old Omaha resident who grew up as a KU fan in Iola.
These were the usual barbs. Missouri won a thriller over Kansas in Columbia and claimed the Big 12 tournament title last week. The Jayhawks evened the score in a classic battle in Lawrence and won the Big 12 regular-season title by a full two games. And there will be no way to end the argument — well, at least if the argument is about this season.
“KU had a great season, obviously. Mizzou had a great season,” said Jay Lindner, a 32-year-old Missouri fan from Columbia. “But the style of basketball that we play, KU is vulnerable. We’ve seen that. We were up 19 in their house. We lost it. But we were up 19 at KU.”
So, yes, the rivalry ended with two games that seemed penned with a screenwriter’s touch. And this brings up the inevitable question — the apocalypse scenario. Could you handle a third matchup... inthat game?
“Absolutely,” said Scott Barney of Council Bluffs, a KU fan who spent his afternoon watching the Jayhawks’ open practice. “I mean, I don’t see Kansas losing to them, honestly.”
There may be no simple or consensus answer amongst both fan bases. But on Thursday afternoon, the question did force fans — dressed in blueand
black — to pause and consider the stakes.
“I think the basketball gods are asking for it right now,” said Scott Lindner, a 33-year-old Missouri fan — and Jay Lindner’s older brother.
“Obviously, it would be an unbelievable story,” said Newland, the KU fan from Omaha.
“As lifelong Mizzou fans… losing doesn’t matter to us,” Jay Lindner said. “But getting there is a huge deal. This is fun. This means a lot to us. If we don’t make it the next six games, and we don’t make it to the championship, we still had a good run. That’s a difference between us and KU fans. If they don’t go there, that’s all there is for them.”
Even inside the CenturyLink Center, the thought was considered — if only for a moment.
“I don’t know,” KU junior center Jeff Withey said. “We don’t have to worry about them, really. We’re not in the same bracket, or anything like that, so … not until the Final Four.”