Vahe Gregorian

Jayhawks and Shockers on juicy men’s basketball collision course

A reunion more than 20 years in the making could happen next Sunday in Omaha, Neb., if both the Wichita State Shockers and Kansas Jayhawks win their first games on Friday.
A reunion more than 20 years in the making could happen next Sunday in Omaha, Neb., if both the Wichita State Shockers and Kansas Jayhawks win their first games on Friday. AP

As has become a rite of Selection Sunday, no sooner did the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee unveil its bracket than the conspiracy theories started bubbling.

It had to be the work of diabolical minds, the thinking goes, to concoct such matchups as Harvard against North Carolina, which is embroiled in an academic scandal.

Or to script as juicy a potential round-of-32 game as Kansas against Wichita State.

“That’s the first thing (my players) said: ‘Gosh, what are they thinking?’” KU coach Bill Self said.

Conspiracy theories are fun to believe and all, but the seeding and bracketing process is just too confined by the principles and policies that guide it allow that kind of mischief.

Self acknowledged that, saying, “I think there’s a lot of different things that go into it.”

In this instance, that meant 12 contingency brackets in play before the final burst of conference-tournament title games on Sunday.

“Not a lot of wiggle room,” tournament committee chairman Scott Barnes said.

And that’s the operative term as it pertains to Kansas, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, and the Shockers, the No. 7 seed.

If the Jayhawks beat 15th-seeded New Mexico State and Wichita State gets past 10th-seeded Indiana on Friday in Omaha, Neb., what happens next will trump the wiggle room KU has used to avoid scheduling the Shockers.

Not that there’s really anything wrong with that from KU’s standpoint. As compelling as a series or occasional game against the Shockers would be amid their surge in recent years, Kansas doesn’t owe Wichita State games, either.

“The one thing about being in coaching a long time and coaching at different schools and different levels is the fact that you understand that coaches schedule what’s in the best interest of their program,” Self said when the topic was hot in 2013. “Nowhere does it say that they are obligated to schedule in the best interest of somebody else’s program that wants to play them.”

Just the same, this is a delicious possibility, maybe one of the most enticing potential games in the tournament — even if each team is less on the radar than it was last year.

Or as KU coach Bill Self joked Sunday: That “would be a dream matchup for Bob Lutz,” the longtime Wichita Eagle columnist.

And for plenty of others, of course, but maybe mostly for Shocker fans.

The last two seasons, they’ve enjoyed a Final Four berth and a No. 1 seed.

But maybe nothing would be as affirming of the program as a victory over Kansas — a pillar of the game whose shadow casts largest locally.

The teams have met 14 times, with Kansas winning 12, including the last five from 1989-93 by a total of 160 points.

And depending on your perspective, for all their recent resurgence the Shockers either are a no-win matchup for KU to schedule or an afterthought in Lawrence.

“Best team in the state,” Andrew Wiggins declared last year after Kansas mashed K-State at Allen Fieldhouse — ignoring the undefeated Shockers even with his older brother, Nick, playing there.

This made for some playful banter at the time.

“Hey, good for them. They should feel that way,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said in his office a short time later. “But I think Nick … might have another opinion. And he is the older brother.”

Playfulness notwithstanding, the flip insinuation is what lurks over this: that of KU being the older brother and Wichita State being the lagging kid.

As rational as Self’s stance on scheduling Wichita State might be, it also could be interpreted as having a condescending undertone to it after Marshall had the audacity to express interest in a home-and-home — not just going to play at Allen.

On Sunday, Marshall was name, rank, serial number on the topic of playing KU, probably to send a message to his team that it better have its mind on Indiana instead of daydreaming a game ahead.

But maybe Marshall protested a bit much when he insisted last year that KU not playing his team “doesn’t bother me, and it really has no effect on us.”

“Because we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can get to the Final Four and be No. 5 in the country, or better, maybe and we haven’t played them yet since I’ve been here. So that has no bearing on what we do. We don’t need it.

“Now, would it be great? It would be great if they wanted to (and Kansas State wanted to). But it’s not imperative.”

Now it actually might be unavoidable.

And if it comes to pass, plenty of sub-plots beckon.

For one, KU’s most consistent player, Perry Ellis, is a Wichita native who considered Wichita State among his final four school choices.

But maybe nothing would epitomize the dynamic like the idea of Wichita State star Ron Baker playing against KU. That’s where he wanted to play as he grew up in Scott City (pop: 4,936).

By the end of his junior year of high school, though, Baker was perhaps 6 feet, 160 pounds, and his best basketball scholarship options were Fort Hays State, South Dakota State, Arkansas-Little Rock and Coffeyville Community College.

By the following spring, Baker had grown to 6-3,190, and his play for a state championship team opened eyes.

Kansas was out of scholarships but invited him to Lawrence.

Baker thought he’d scrimmage on the visit and perhaps have a chance to walk on. It was baseball season by then, though, and he felt his basketball game was rusty.

He ultimately declined the trip, his father, Neil, said, because the idea of scrimmaging at KU “kind of gave him cold feet. He didn’t want to embarrass himself.”

By then, Baker also had become enamored of Wichita State. That’s been as good a fit for all as anyone could have wanted.

But it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t relish this game — like so many others would.

And maybe all the better that it took the happenstance of the NCAA Tournament to set up the possibility of a matchup that would mean more than any regular-season game between them ever could.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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