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February 8, 2009

Powered Up: The way it ought to be

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There are a million possible punchlines. Ask a Missouri fan, "Why do you hate Kansas?" and there is really no limit to the number of responses you're going to get. But, if you get down to it, there's really only one answer: You hate them because they're good. Really good. Pretty much always have been, and as much as you hate to hear it, probably pretty much always will be.

Yeah, I know that's a terrible way to start off a commentary on a Missouri fan site. Frankly, 75% of you probably quit reading already. But I promise you there's a method to my madness. See, when I ask why you hate Kansas, and when you answer, you know I'm talking about basketball. Kansas football? Until the last two years, who's ever hated them? I mean, you hate them because it says KU on the helmet, and there is that whole thing about the mascot being a made up bird, but honestly, you don't really hate Kansas football that much. Even when Missouri was awful-and I mean one or two wins a year awful-the Tigers were pretty competitive with Kansas.

Not as much in basketball. Anyone who watches college hoops knows you only have to name five or six schools--and if I'm being honest, probably fewer than that--on the "Greatest Programs of all time" list before you get to the Beaks.

So anyway, I've now spent three paragraphs buttering up the thing most of you hate more than anything in the world. Why did I do it? Because on Monday night, things are once again going to be right with the world.

To explain, I grew up in Kansas City, the dead solid center of Kansas vs. Missouri. You didn't like them both. Or if you did, you didn't know one damn thing about sports, or really, about life in general. I grew up there in the 1980's. Kansas made a couple of Final Fours that decade, they (or so I have been told, I seem to have blocked it out of my memory) won a national title (supposedly in my home town). You know, they were good. Like I said, always have been.

But the thing is, when I was growing up, so was Missouri. There was the 1989 season when the Tigers and Jayhawks batted No. 1 back and forth between themselves in the Oklahoma Sooners in an all-Big Eight game of keepaway. There was Derrick Chievous and then Doug Smith and then Anthony Peeler. There was 1994 with the unbeaten conference season. That was my senior year in high school.

And through all that, there was the Border War. Every game then was big. But none were as big as the two games a year against Kansas. I remember Anthony Peeler dropping 40-plus in a loss. I remember Smith leading the way in a No. 1 vs No. 2 showdown on ESPN that will very likely be replayed at sometime during the day on the Ocho or one of ESPN's other "family of network" stations. I remember Mark Randall and Kevin Pritchard and Pekka Markinnen (I don't think I spelled his name right but I really don't care) and Adonis Jordan and Alonzo Jamison and Jerod Haase and 47 other basketball players that cast their lot with the Evil Empire. Man, people got amped for those games.

Then we went through what I'll call the "Upset Era." In Norm Stewart's last few years, the years I was in college at Mizzou, the Tigers really weren't very good. They had teams led by guys like Tyron Lee and Jeff Hafer and L. Dee Murdock. They played hard, but they really weren't that good. But for one game a year, man they were tough. Four times the Jayhawks came to Columbia ranked in the nation's top three in my college career. Three times, they left losers to the unranked Tigers. There was Corey Tate from the free throw line, there was double overtime for the only regular season loss for Pollard and Pierce and Vaughn and LaFrentz (I still think it was the best Kansas team I ever saw). You know, Missouri wasn't really good, but they won that game.

And since then, well, there hasn't been much. Quin Snyder split his first four games with Kansas. Since then, the Tigers have lost 14 of the 19 times they've played. Mike Anderson hasn't beaten KU. Missouri mostly has been mired in seasons so poor that even beating Kansas didn't give fans anything but a momentary respite from the abyss that was now their program.

But as you wake up and read this, all is right with the college basketball world in these parts. The Tigers and the Jayhawks are both ranked (or at least they will be by tipoff). That's the first time that has happened since February 3rd, 2003. They're both almost certainly going to play in the NCAA tournament. And this game on Monday night, it means something. It could solidify the Jayhawks as the only real threat to Oklahoma. It could put the Tigers in a sudden three-way discussion for the league championship. It gives somebody the upper hand when it comes to a seed in the Big 12 tournament and the NCAA tournament. It's on Big Monday. And it's freaking Kansas.

There's a generation or two of students at Missouri who don't know what this is like. This is the biggest game they've ever seen. And while that's great, it's also kind of sad. See, this game used to happen twice a year when I was growing up. Kansas, they were always good. But when I became a fan, so was Missouri. Monday night would have been just another game back then. Not now. Hasn't been that way for a while. This isn't Big Monday. This is Show-the-Country-Your-Program-is-Back Monday. At least to Mizzou fans.

But more simply, what this is, is the way things should be. It's Ryan Robertson being bombarded with boos. It's the Antlers in dresses. It's Norm and Roy and Dooling's (non) charging foul and Tate's jumper and the best rivalry in this part of the country. And it's back, folks. Enjoy it. This is how it was in the good old days. Let's hope it stays this way for a while.

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