Before a college basketball season, some programs conduct closed scrimmages against similar opponents or ease into a season with games against overmatched competition.
What happened Sunday between Kansas and Missouri was the rarest of contests.
High expectations follow both in the regular season, a common burden for the Jayhawks, a new feeling for the Tigers under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin and star freshman Michael Porter Jr. Five of the Rivals.com top 45 prospects in the class of 2017 played in this game and three suited up for the Tigers.
The game didn’t occur in an empty Allen Fieldhouse or Mizzou Arena, but in the sold-out, split-down-the-middle, wild atmosphere of neutral Sprint Center. Only a KU-Iowa State meeting in the Big 12 Tournament is similarly charged.
The schools were so adamant about the charity component, fund-raising for hurricane relief, that seats and space that go to bands and cheerleaders were sold to fans, and the same with the press seating on the floor.
Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger got a call from his school’s ticket office earlier this week to get his credit card number. No freebies this week.
Benefits abound. Five relief funds will receive a total of nearly $2 million. The Power & Light District got a revenue boost it didn’t expect two weeks ago. And the Jayhawks and Tigers should be further developed than many teams when the season begins because they met on the hardwood for the first time in Kansas City’s streetcar era.
The teams agreed in advance to seven fouls per player. Only Missouri freshman Jeremiah Tilmon used his full allotment. Coaches Bill Self and Cuonzo Martin agreed not to play zone.
But they got plenty from this remarkable experience.
“The things we’ve been telling them they’re deficient at, now they’ll believe,” Self said. “A lot of teams go into a season with a false sense of who you are. We’ve done that many times … but today exposed us in some ways.”
Martin had a similar sense, and it may be more important for Missouri. Kansas has a senior leader in guard Devonté Graham, and his 25-point, 10-rebound effort was a huge difference in the Jayhawks’ 93-87 victory.
The Tigers will lean on a mixture of newcomers and veterans who haven’t experienced the type of success the program now expects.
“For young guys who haven’t played on this stage, Michael Porter is a talented guy but he hasn’t been on a stage like this,” Martin said. “Blake Harris, Jeremiah Tilmon, the energy and passion to be able to go through that, and feel that … ”
Martin called it a “win-win” and his team didn’t win. The Tigers led at halftime. Kansas opened what appeared to be a comfortable lead late but had to withstand a late Mizzou charge before the fans could break out in a “Rock Chalk” chant. That’s the competitive value of Sunday’s game.
Self is convinced Missouri is in store for a great season, and if such an impression can be made in October, the Tigers flashed the look of an NCAA Tournament team. Porter’s all-round game, Tilmon’s inside presence, and the perimeter shooting of transfer Kassius Robertson are among the qualities that give Mizzou the chance to make one of the great improvements in the sport’s recent history.
As for Kansas, nothing on display Sunday changed the Final Four-or-bust objective. Graham played like Frank Mason last season, and big man Ukoka Azubuike is on path to become the difference-maker that could have occurred before his season-ending injury as a freshman.
The event as an annual occurrence is another story. Both coaches were asked about it, and their responses remained consistent. It boils down to this: Mizzou’s all for it, KU isn’t. To the Jayhawks, this was a one-time deal for charity. As far as Kansas is concerned, the next meeting with Missouri will be arranged by the NCAA Touranment selection committee.
If there is no immediate future for the Border War rivals, they’ll have Sunday, and that was beneficial to all involved.