Tuesday, December 17, 2013

COMMENTARY: Time for Kansas, Wichita State to square off in men's hoops

By NICK SLOAN, nick@kansascitykansan.com

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- For the past two weeks, the Kansas Jayhawks have not been the highest ranked college basketball team from the great state of Kansas.

That honor belongs to the Wichita State Shockers, one of a handful of undefeated teams left. The Shockers are 11-0 after winning games against two SEC opponents in the past four days - Alabama and Tennessee.

Winning is nothing new for the Shockers.

Since Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall arrived in Wichita in 2007, the program is 150-70. But after a rough first two seasons (Wichita State was just 28-37), the Shockers have earned four straight 25-win seasons. In 2010-11, the program won the NIT tournament.

Two years later, Wichita State shocked the state and the world by making it to the Final Four, where they gave eventual champion Louisville a major scare.

Wichita State's winning ways have come in the shadow of Jayhawk dominance.

Up the road in Lawrence, Kan., the Jayhawks have dominated the Big 12 and have made two trips to the Final Four since 2007, including a national title in the 2007-08 year.

The rise of Wichita State has brought attention to the Kansas-Wichita State basketball series that was cut off in the Roy Williams era. Wichita State fans believe the Jayhawks are ducking them. The explanation from Lawrence cites finances and such.

Whatever the reason, it's time for these teams to square off --- and soon.

1. Wichita State has earned it

As mentioned above, Wichita State has won 25 games four straight seasons. They made a Final Four. This is no fluke team. Wichita State has proven that they belong in primetime and after defeating Ohio State and Gonzaga last year in the tournament, they belong on the same stage as any team. Period. End of story. While they may not have the tradition KU does, Wichita State is no cupcake anymore.

2. Losing to them would not be embarrassing

One reason that some larger schools refuse to schedule smaller schools is the fear they may lose to them. It's a "lose-lose" situation, if you must. But again, Wichita State is now a Top 25 program. Would losing to them really be as embarrassing as losing to Bucknell, Bradley, VCU or Northern Iowa, as the Jayhawks have in the tournament? KU won a title after losing to Bucknell and Bradley. They made a Final Four after losing to VCU and Northern Iowa. How many KU fans are haunted by losing to Kansas State the year the Jayhawks won it all in 2008? Losing to Wichita State would be an afterthought compared to those losses. Plus, if KU won and won big, it shuts a lot of people wearing gold and black up.

3. Playing a great mid-major team helps prepare a team for the big tournament.

There are more tournament upsets today than there were in the 1970's and 1980's. While KU fans can relate to bad losses, other great programs like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA have suffered humiliating tournament losses to mid-major programs in the past 15 years. Playing those great mid-major teams is a must in 2013-14. For KU, one of the best mid-major programs is just a few hours down the road. Scheduling Wichita State would make a lot of sense and would prepare the Jayhawks well for the tournament.

4. It would be great for the state of Kansas

Could you imagine how great a "back and forth" series would be at neutral sites like Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita and the Sprint Center in Kansas City? The game would generate a lot of buzz and rather than the Shockers playing Alabama or KU playing Colorado, they would play each other. A KU-Wichita State game would likely have a primetime airing on ESPN or maybe even a national game on CBS.

It's a great match-up that needs to happen. Here’s hoping that both athletic programs can put aside differences and get it done.