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February 23, 2012

Powered Up: The Biggest Border War Ever





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Three weeks ago, I was asked frequently, "Is Saturday's game against Kansas the biggest regular season game in the history of Missouri basketball?"

At the time, I said I wasn't sure. I have an answer now. It wasn't. Because this Saturday is.

That's the kind of thing you're not supposed to say. At media day this afternoon, I can guarantee you neither Frank Haith nor any of his players will say it. Same will go for Bill Self and the Jayhawks. They will say it's another game, it's the next game, all of that.

But I don't play. What I type on Saturday inside Allen Fieldhouse, or in the days leading up to tipoff, won't have one single bit of impact on how the game unfolds. So I can say it.

Kansas and Missouri have played 266 times. They have played at least twice every year since 1907. From 1908-1921, the arch-rivals played four times each season. Since then, the two have hooked up three times in a year 26 times and four times once more. Game No. 267 is the biggest in the history of the rivalry.

For years, Kansas fans have mocked the Mizzou faithful by saying, "It's your Super Bowl." I've never quite understood why that is an insult. Of course, the Kansas games are the games of the year. Missouri doesn't regularly play anyone else with the pedigree the Jayhawks have. The Tigers don't have another rivalry that is rooted in hatred and bloodshed and goes back to the Civil War. Hell, nobody has that. As someone who has followed Missouri for about 30 years now, I've never understood why it's not okay to admit that game is bigger than the rest. Is it big enough that a 2-30 season is okay as long as the two are against Kansas? Of course not. Is it bigger than reaching a Final Four would be? No, don't be dumb. But when the schedule comes out in September or October, the first thing Tiger fans look to see is on which two days they'll be facing Kansas.

Jayhawk fans like to say it's not as important to them. They like to say it's not a rivalry because it's not close. Well, I call shenanigans on that one. I've been to Allen Fieldhouse eight years running. It's always loud, I'm sure, but the decibel level and the passion inside that building when Missouri is the opponent belie the statement that this game isn't a little bit more important than the rest. Somehow, Kansas fans think it is beneath them to admit that. I don't really know why.

This Saturday, the Tigers and the Jayhawks meet again. On the line is first place in the Big 12 and the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament (and quite possibly the NCAA Tournament). If Kansas wins, the Jayhawks need only to win at Oklahoma State or at home against Texas (or have Missouri lose once) to wrap up their fifth consecutive outright title. A win ensures they will at least share the crown for the eighth year in a row.

From the Missouri side, the Tigers will tie Kansas for first with a win. They would win any tiebreaker due to two head-to-head wins over the Jayhawks. That means wins at home against Iowa State and on the road against Texas Tech would wrap up Missouri's first ever Big 12 regular season championship and would give Mizzou the No. 1 seed in the league tourney. Pair those two wins with one Kansas loss and the Tigers would win the crown outright.

So, there's all that, and all that makes this a huge game. But that alone would not make this as big as it is.

These teams have won league titles. Before the league became the Big 12, Kansas won or shared the different incarnations of the conference 43 times. Missouri won or shared 15 titles (only Kansas and Kansas State, with 17, had more than Mizzou). Kansas, then, has gone on its recent run of seven in a row.

They have played with league titles on the line and, even more, with No. 1 in the country on the line. They have battled for conference tournament titles. A number of times. And always, there have been bragging rights on the line.

But there's that other story beneath the surface of this one. This is the last time Missouri and Kansas are guaranteed to play in basketball. EVER.

Now, no one quite expects that to be the case. Most think they will meet again in the Big 12 tournament in just a couple of weeks. Anyone that thinks the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee won't grab the first opportunity it has to pair the two in the Big Dance is foolish. Bill Self even left the door open after the February 4th game in Columbia that the teams could play again down the road in the regular season, though not in the immediate future. Sometime, they will play again. This is not the end.

But for now, it is. The Tigers are headed to the Southeastern Conference and Kansas is staying in the Big 12. The Jayhawks will continue to be the premier program in their league and Missouri will have to deal twice a year with Kentucky, another of college basketball's bluebloods, and fans will focus their hatred on Mike Anderson and Arkansas rather than the Jayhawks. And even if they play again, it will be important. But it won't quite be the same. Not as a non-conference game.

A Missouri win would not do anything to make the series less lopsided (Kansas leads 171-95). It would not put any banners in Mizzou Arena or close the gap in Final Fours or national titles. But it would give the Tigers bragging rights for the foreseeable future. It would give them an excellent shot at their first and last Big 12 title, the biggest fear of everyone in the conference outside of Columbia and a giant middle finger to the league they are leaving.

A Kansas win would give the Jayhawks the crown again. Kansas fans would tell those that support the Tigers that even in what may be the best season in school history, Missouri was playing for second place. It would send the Tigers to the SEC with a very good season, but without a league title in all likelihood.

The game is bigger for Missouri than for Kansas. Even with a loss, the Jayhawks are in good shape to grab a share of the conference crown. The Tigers would not be. And if that doesn't happen, Kansas isn't exactly lacking for championship hardware. But make no mistake, this game is the biggest of the year for both teams.

Fifteen days after it is over (Selection Sunday), this game will not even technically be the biggest either team plays this season. Basketball seasons are made in March. But make no mistake, regular season games don't get any bigger than Saturday.

The Brawl in '61, Stormin' Norman, Danny and the Miracles, Lee Coward, Anthony Peeler, Roy Williams, Corey Tate, Clarence Gilbert, Aaron Miles, Kirk Hinrich, David Padgett, Zaire Taylor, Marcus Denmon. All are etched in Missouri-Kansas history. All the history has led to this. To Saturday. To the biggest game of the year. To the biggest game in 105 years.

Brace yourselves, the final shots are about to be fired in the Border War.

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