LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP)Christian Braun waded through hundreds of camping students in the foyer of Allen Fieldhouse, trying to navigate his way from the locker room to the court for a final shootaround before Kansas took on UTEP down the road in Kansas City.
It was Monday afternoon.
All those students, each representing groups of up to 20 kids, huddled in corners, tucked themselves behind doorways and sprawled on the tile floor for six more days. They would trade off with others when they needed to head to class, or get a bite to eat, but otherwise they would continue their vigil until Saturday afternoon.
All to ensure they got the best seats for the return of the Border War.
For the first time since Missouri jilted the Big 12 for the riches of the SEC, the Tigers are coming across the state line to play their once-bitter rival in basketball. The Tigers and Jayhawks have met 268 times on the hardwood – games punctuated by heroics and heartbreak, ferocity and fistfights – but not since their last regular-season matchup in 2012.
”I was looking for it before (beating UTEP), to be real honest with you,” said Braun, who was born in Burlington, Kansas, and played his high school ball in suburban Kansas City. ”We watched this game growing up and seeing how intense the rivalry is – it’s big for my family, but I’m just excited to play with Kansas on my chest.”
The football-driven rounds of conference realignment have deprived fans of many traditional rivalries. The Nebraska-Oklahoma football games have become a nonconference rarity, as has Texas A&M-Texas – though that one that will be renewed soon with the Longhorns now headed to the SEC, too.
There are few rivalries in college sports that can match the shared hatred of Kansas and Missouri.
The animosity dates to pre-Civil War days, when anti-slavery ”Jayhawkers” ransacked pro-slavery communities in Missouri, which in part led to the formation of the ”Tigers,” a unit tasked with protecting Columbia from guerillas. Perhaps the most infamous event occurred in 1863, when William Quantrill’s band of vigilantes raided Lawrence in a deadly raid.
Both schools adopted nicknames from those days. In early football matchups, Civil War veterans from both sides would stand on the sideline, staring at each other across the field as if it was a battlefield.
”I know about the rivalry. I know all about the Border War,” Kansas forward Ochai Agbaji said. ”It means a lot. Growing up on the Missouri side, I kind of get their perspective on KU. Now being at KU – I just know they hate each other.”
So much so that former Kansas football coach Don Fambrough once said he’d die rather than seek medical treatment from a physician across the state line. Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart refused to stay in Kansas hotels or allow the bus to fill up there, lest the Tigers pour any money into the Kansas economy.
The games themselves have been equally heated.
During the finals of a 1951 holiday tournament, Kansas star Clyde Lovelette stomped on the stomach of Missouri’s Win Wilfon, nearly leading to a melee among fans. It took Tigers coach Wilbur Stalcup on the microphone to calm them down.
Ten years later, a fistfight erupted during a game in Lawrence, prompting Kansas athletic director Dutch Lonborg to suggest the rivalry be discontinued. When the teams played again later in the season, another brawl broke out when the Jayhawks’ Wayne Hightower threw a punch after being fouled.
That shared history was brushed aside in 2012, though, when the Tigers departed their longtime conference home. The ensuing realignment left the Big 12 on precarious footing, and that didn’t sit well with Kansas coach Bill Self. He vowed to never allow the Jayhawks to play the Tigers in a nonconference game.
In their last meeting at Allen Fieldhouse, with both teams ranked in the top 10, Kansas rallied from 19 down in the second half to beat the Tigers in a nail-biter. The Jayhawks would go on to reach the national title game.
”It was probably the most emotional home game that I’ve ever been a part of,” Self recalled. ”There was pressure on us to win that game and we didn’t handle it very well. And when the lid came off, we played well down the stretch.
”That,” Self said, ”was college basketball at its best.”
Fortunately for college basketball, time heals most wounds. Self’s stance softened over the years, and Kansas and Missouri even played an exhibition game in 2017 to raise money for victims of hurricanes Harvey and Maria.
Then the schools announced what fans had long awaited: They would begin a six-game series with four games on campus and two at a neutral site, with a four-game football series coming down the road. The first basketball game was supposed to be last season, but it was pushed back one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It just wouldn’t be the same with only a fraction of fans allowed in the building.
”It’s a game on the floor but it’s more than that,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. ”This is one of the top five games that historically you will see, and I’m glad to have it back. The guys will feel whatever that is in this game. You have to embrace it because this is a historic game. It’s one of the best venues in basketball. All of that matters.”
The eighth-ranked Jayhawks are a big favorite on Saturday, when all those students camping out will finally be allowed to take their seats. They have one of their best teams in years while the Tigers, who went to the NCAA Tournament just last year, are going through a series of growing pains under Martin.
Records have never really mattered when the Jayhawks play the Tigers, though.
The only thing that matters is the game itself.
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