Saturday marks the 268th time that the Kansas Jayhawks face off against the Kansas State Wildcats in some form or another on the hardwood. The series dates back to 1907 with Kansas holding a decisive 177 to 90 advantage in overall record.
Recent years have somewhat renewed this twice yearly standoff to a bit of a heated event. An era ushered in by Bob Huggins and then Michael Beasley, appears to be continuing with Frank Martin and his current group. While in all reality the Kansas State Wildcats can still only boast two wins in the last 39 attempts there seems to be a buzz for this one that did not exist until recently. For the first time in many Jayhawk fans lifetime this is a rivalry and for others this is a rivalry renewed.
The last decade in which the Wildcats were consistently productive was the 1980's. Kansas fans around at the time remember Coach Jack Hartman and then Lon Kruger late in the decade. Names like Mitch Richmond, Randy Reed, Rolando Blackman and Steve Henson are Wildcats from a time when these games typically meant something. In fact during one stretch from the Big 8 tournament in 1978 through the first matchup of the 1984 season, the Wilcats would complete an 11-3 run in this series.
1988 might have been the most recent peak in the history of this rivalry. The Jayhawks and Wildcats would square off 4 times during what would culminate in a national title for the Jayhawks. Interestingly neither team would win on their home court as Kansas State would come into Lawrence that season and walk out with a 72-61 victory in the phog. On the return trip Kansas would escape Manhattan with a one point victory before the two would face off in the Big 8 tournament in Kansas City. The seesaw back and forth would continue with Kansas State getting the best of Kansas by 15 in this one but ultimately Kansas would get the last laugh.
It's covered ad nauseaum how the Jayhawks would complete their miracle run to the 1988 title by redeeming two previous losses to the Sooners in the regulars season. An often missed storyline is the Jayhawks 2nd win over their hated in state rival Kansas State to win the regional crown and reach the final four. The rivalry was alive and well in the late 80's, but the fall off beginning in the 90's was steep.
Take my story as an example. I vaguely remember 1988. I was 7 at the time, old enough to know we had won the national title but hardly old enough to remember the journey, let alone a few games against the Wildcats. 1991 stands out in my mind as the moment the light turned on completely. Regular season, conference tourney, the whole season was something I was a part of. Twice in fifteen years had I seen the Wildcats beat the Jayhawks. TWICE. It's hard to imagine a rivalry where that is even possible. For me it was the Tigers that mattered most. Missouri was who I hated and Kansas State wasn't even a speed bump in the road.
I can remember Bill Snyder turning Kansas State into a football contender and my grandfather telling me how they were really a basketball school. It just didn't register with me. I never got ramped up for the Wildcats, never cared if they might just happen to win because it really wouldn't bother me in the least if they stole one every 15 years or so.
Enter Bob Huggins. While the experiment ended rather abruptly, he did instantly make the rivalry matter more than it had in the past. His arrival didn't necessarily translate to instant success on the court as the Jayhawks still held suit winning all three meetings with the Wildcats in his opening season. Still, there was no denying that Allen Fieldhouse West was shifting back to it's rightful owners at least in terms of fan support.
After just one season the Huggins story ended, Frank Martin was hired and the jury was out. Michael Beasley and Bill Walker carried the Wildcats to a win over Kansas, a tournament appearance and an upset victory over the #6 seed USC Trojans. Not a bad little spike on the chart, blip on the radar or whatever you want to call it.
Probably more impressive though has been what appears now to be a sign of sustained success. The Wildcats successfully defended home court against the #1 ranked longhorns and then went on the road against a tough Baylor team escaping with a two point win. The Wilcats have put together talent outside of the one and done Michael Beasley train and they are developing a program.
Are things so good in Manhattan that they can declare they have arrived? I'm not sure I would say that yet, but the signs are there. Kansas State looks to be a contender for the Big 12 at the moment. The pieces look to be in place for some form of sustained success and Frank Martin has proven many of his critics wrong by developing some semblance of a program and an identity just three years in.
A rivalry renewed perhaps? I'd say so. I welcome it, I've been waiting for it and I'm going to enjoy it win or lose. For too long Kansas ran through the Big 8 and then the Big 12 before facing some adversity in the tournament and lacking a bit of the toughness to fight through. With a packed Bramlage fueled by pure hate, a team worthy of the term rival and an atmosphere as intense as you will find, this rivalry will make Kansas a better basketball team every year. As the saying goes, it is during times of adversity where you learn who you really are.
Obviously I'll still wait for Kansas State to put consistency on the court, but for now the pieces do appear to be in place to make that happen. The pieces appear to be in place to elevate this game and this series back to a level of importance. Importance despite the fact that Kansas State is still 29 years away from this series drawing even and that's including a clean sweep of the regular season and one postseason contest every year. Probably not in my lifetime, but I can certainly live with that and I can also live with having a worthy adversary to the west. Rock Chalk Jayhawk and on to Manhattan.