KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- How infectious is the local atmosphere ahead of tonight's game between No. 1 Duke and No. 4 Kansas State? Even Kansas fans are getting in on the fun.
Kevin Graham, a Hutchinson, Kan. native, came to downtown Kansas City Tuesday night wearing what will no doubt be an unpopular choice in personal attire: a blue and red Kansas windbreaker with a blue Jayhawks hat to match. If you think Duke's royal blue will stick out in the purple-packed Sprint Center, imagine being the guy with the KU hat on. Bold choice, sir.
Once Graham clarified the reasoning behind the wardrobe, though, you had to admire his sense of camaraderie.
"I'm rooting for them," Graham said of K-State, which is not something you'll hear from Kansas fans too often. "I can't wear that purple. Not going to wear the purple. But I put on the KU colors, and I'll be rooting for them."
A Kansas fan? Wearing Kansas gear? As a sign of support for ... Kansas State?
"A sign of respect," Graham said. "Absolutely."
If the comments section of this very website is any indication, Kansas and Kansas State fans aren't exactly going to start buying each other Cokes and singing "Godspell" numbers anytime soon.
So it's fair to say Graham and his Wildcat-loving friend, Darin Ackley, who also made the drive in from Hutchinson Tuesday afternoon, might not be the most representative sample when it comes to hoops loyalties. (The duo was on the way to grab drinks in Kansas City's prefab KC Live bar area with their two friends -- a married Duke couple -- thus forming tonight's version of a college hoops rainbow coalition. I vote we send Ackley and Graham to negotiate an Israel-Palestine accord. They seem to have the secret.)
But it was striking to see a KU fan joining in with the thousands of Kansas State fans that had already descended on downtown KC for tonight's big game. It was also, perhaps, telling: If a Kansas fan can respect the Wildcats, the suddenly high-profile program has to be doing something right.
Ackley said tonight's game was "the biggest for K-State hoops in quite some time," which might be an understatement. Kansas State hoops has a unique and potentially seminal opportunity Tuesday night. It can, in one fell swoop, beat the defending national champion and No. 1 team in the country; put itself on the top of the polls for the first time in the modern era; energize a fan base with the power to say "I was at the Sprint Center for that game"; and announce itself to a national audience -- not just among college hoops die-hards, but among casual fans, too -- as a hoops power in 2010 in beyond.
For a program and fan base that has long lived -- at least where it concerns basketball -- in the shadow of the Jayhawks, that's a very big night indeed.
"We've always had good fans," Ackley said. "When we were consistently winning conference titles in football, Kansas State fans would travel anywhere."
"They won't hesitate to drive clear across the state," Graham said.
"But I think there hasn't been as much attention paid to the college basketball side until recently," Ackley said. "The potential was always there. We win this game, and there's no question other people start to realize what we've got here. We'll get more respect."
Of course, Kansas State has to win first. But even before the game, the atmosphere had a distinctive feel, as though people were preparing for a coronation. (In sports, you prepare for coronations by leaving work at noon and getting drunk all day. That's why sports are awesome.) Finally, perhaps, the lowly Wildcats were going to unbridle that ageless us-vs.-them tension. Finally, they would get some respect.
On my way into the arena, I ran into another group of fans. They were entering the Sprint Center the way everyone does: by emptying their pockets and stepping through a metal detector. As the last of the group went through, he turned to the elderly usher manning the metal detector and made a quick assurance.
"I'm a KU fan," he said. "So I don't have a big belt buckle on."
Ah, well. You can't change the world overnight.