KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Big 12 has the perfect storm.
So, too does the NCAA tournament selection committee if it wanted to get a primer to hype up their main event next week.
Top-ranked Kansas and ninth-ranked Kansas State, the two best teams in the Big 12, arguably the two teams with the most passionate hoop fans in the Big 12, will meet for the Big 12 tournament title Saturday night at the Sprint Center.
There will not be a better atmosphere for a tournament title game in 2010. Kentucky-Tennessee in an SEC semifinal in Nashville could be epic but that’s a semifinal. This is a final with one team locked into the No. 1 seed, and another that still holds out hope to grab the fourth No. 1.
One team has dominated the series, the sport in the state, and has cast a major shadow over the other program for the past two decades. And now, for once, the overshadowed one has a chance to stand on its own.
“I’m telling you if there’s a better atmosphere then what you see here, I’ll quit my job,’’ said Kansas State coach Frank Martin in the bowels of the Sprint Center late Friday night after the Wildcats beat Baylor 82-75 in one semifinal. In the other, Kansas ran away from Texas A&M 79-66 in the second half after trailing the Aggies by three at the break.
Kansas State was a national player for decades, but when Kansas won the national title in 1988 the two programs went separately.
“They continued to move forward, we took a step back,’’ Martin said. “We’re trying to make it back so that all those great coaches and players who came through here can be proud. Our fans love basketball. Kansas fans love basketball. It’s going to be great for the state of Kansas. It’s going to be tremendous for us to be able to play for the trophy and to continue to build credibility as we make the steps with this program.’’
Judging from the sea of blue outside the Sprint Center prior to tipoff and the domination of the hypnotic “Rock-Chalk Jayhawk’’ chant late Friday night, you can only imagine how the Jayhawk nation will turn out for Saturday’s finale. Not to be outdone, the purple passion of the Kansas State fans, who arguably got just as loud and somehow seemed to be in as many seats as Kansas fans late Friday night.
“If you had to play Kansas in a best out of 10 with us or any other team in the country you’re probably not winning the series,’’ Martin said. “You get one crack at the big dawg so you’ve got to take advantage of that. That’s why we played a top-five schedule. We’re the second-best team in this league and we’re playing for a conference championship.’’
The Wildcats had two cracks at Kansas, losing in overtime in Manhattan and hanging tight at Phog Allen with 10 minutes left before the Jayhawks pushed forward for the win.
Kansas won the Big 12 by four games.
“This can make everybody in Manhattan happy,’’ said Kansas State’s Denis Clemente, a transfer from Miami who has quickly grasped how much the Wildcat fans want to beat Kansas. “This is what everybody there wants.’’
Earlier Friday, Kansas coach Bill Self talked about how focused the Jayhawks were in winning the Big 12 tournament title. He said technically the tournament champ is called the Big 12 champ. So if that’s the case ‘let’s go win.’ And that’s another motivating factor for Kansas State, as if playing Kansas wasn’t the obvious one. Kansas State can lay claim to a Big 12 title, something unfathomable probably to most. The last time Kansas State played Kansas for the conference championship was in 1981, when the two schools were in the Big Eight.
“This would be like beating up your big brother who is always beating up on you,’’ said Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen. “You’re finally all grown up and now you have a chance to beat them up. Kansas has been No. 1 or No. 2 since Naismith was there.’’
There is more at stake, as well. Kansas State firmly believes it can still be in the running for a No. 1 seed, or more importantly to be in Oklahoma City for the first round as a No. 2 seed. Kansas is a lock for Oklahoma City. New Mexico’s MWC tournament semifinal loss to San Diego State may have pushed Kansas State into Oklahoma City anyway. But K-State can certainly make that moot with a win over KU.
The No. 1 seed discussion could be interesting if Ohio State and Duke were to lose in the Big Ten and ACC semifinals, respectively, Saturday.
So much can change for Kansas State if it beats Kansas.
Kansas’ Sherron Collins said no one would be able to get a ticket for Kansas-Kansas State. A licensed ticket scalper said he thought tickets would go for $400 Saturday, hefty prices for here.
“They know us, we know them, and they’re not only the best team in our league, but the best team in the country,’’ Martin said. “We aspire to be that one day. We’re not on equal footing. I would say we’ve shrunk the gap and that the gap is a lot smaller than it used to be. But to be in the conversation with them we actually have to beat them on our home court. But we have a chance to play them for a conference championship. And that’s big time.’’
Yes, it is. And no other tournament title game can touch it this season. If the game can live up to the anticipation then it will be quite a sendoff for both teams heading into an NCAA tournament, where they could meet again in Indianapolis at the Final Four.