Monday March 23rd, 2015

OMAHA, Neb.—With about 13 minutes left at the Century Link Center, Frank Mason crumpled to the floor, wincing. The Kansas point guard had taken a shot to a very sensitive area from Wichita State’s burly Shaquille Morris. Mason writhed, his eyes shut, eventually bringing his body up only to settle into an agonized squat. And Morris just stood there, looming, stone-faced, with his hands on his hips. Waiting for the guy he had put down to get up for some more.

The kings of Kansas wore yellow and black on Sunday. It was a 78-65 win for Wichita State over Kansas in a meeting that took more than two decades to contrive, and it will be remembered for much longer than that. It meant a Sweet 16 appearance for Wichita State but obviously much more than that. It was the sort of night that puts celebrations on pause when the governor wants to visit the locker room, with a beaming Sam Brownback slipping on a yellow T-shirt and proclaiming the Shockers to be “my team,” moments after snapping cell phone pictures like a giddy booster.

“I’m just really, really, really speechless,” Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. “You pinch yourself to make sure it’s real.”

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This was real, all right, maybe far too much for Kansas’ liking. This was the reckoning the Shockers sought. Their coach believed they were nervous early, “like a deer in headlights” Gregg Marshall said. After that they swung free and didn’t miss often. They played with the edge you would expect of kids disregarded by the leviathan in Lawrence, limiting the Jayhawks to 35% shooting, outrebounding and outworking the Big 12 champions every trip. They couldn’t be ignored even if Kansas tried.

It was a catharsis so perfect it was hardly to be believed. Above all, maybe that’s why point guard Fred VanVleet dribbled out the clock with one hand to his ear as the screams from Wichita State fans filled the CenturyLink Center. Maybe that’s why Baker walked toward that crowd and flexed his arms, his fists balled up, before he broke into a wide smile and gave the people a salute at the final horn. This was no accident. The Shockers took what they wanted from the Jayhawks.

“At the end of the day, when that ball tips, it don’t matter if you’re a McDonald’s All-American or a draft pick or whatever,” VanVleet said. “It’s college. You ain’t no draft pick yet.”

Wichita State drove Kansas into submission. The Shockers cracked off a 13-2 run to end the first half and never trailed again. Tekele Cotton, the Missouri Valley Conference defensive player of the year, led the way with 19 points while limiting Kansas’ Wayne Selden to zero. Whenever the Jayhawks twitched to life, the Shockers smothered them again. A Cotton run-out pushed a lead that had slipped to as little as eight points back to 12 with about four minutes left, prompting a Kansas timeout. Before returning to the huddle, VanVleet brought all five Wichita State players to mid-court and they put their arms around each other.

Don’t celebrate yet, he said. “We’re not giving them the game,” the junior said after the game. “If they’re going to beat us, they’re going to have to do some extreme stuff.”

The Jayhawks weren’t capable of that Sunday. The Shockers, meanwhile reveled in what they accomplished. And perhaps no one felt its significance more than Baker though he needed some time to sort it out. He grew up in Scott City, Kan., population 3,889, longing to play for the Jayhawks. He had a Kirk Hinrich poster on his bedroom wall. His grandmother made him a Kansas piggy bank. When the Jayhawks lost to Syracuse in the 2003 national title game, he was inconsolable. “If they got beat, he was pissed,” his father, Neil, said Sunday. “You didn’t want to talk to him for the rest of the day.”

Kansas City Star via Getty

But when it came time to audition for the Jayhawks in a scrimmage that his father had set up for him on campus in Lawrence, he let the dream go. Playing baseball had left him too rusty in basketball. So Baker refused to be rejected. His reasoning for canceling the trip has been well-documented, and his father repeated it again on Sunday: I’m not going to embarrass myself, Baker told his father.

He scored 12 points against Kansas, one of five Wichita State players in double figures. Baker often moves through games with barely a flicker of emotion. He couldn’t contain himself at the end this time. His arms were taut and his teeth were clenched and he couldn’t make sense of what he was feeling. “This is a game I dreamed about, but I dreamed about being on the other bench,” Baker said. “It was just like slapping myself across the face, that this is reality. And we won.”

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It got more surreal when the hollering in the locker room was interrupted by a governor having a ball. Brownback was wearing a gray T-shirt he bought the day before, properly neutral, featuring the logos of both teams. Over that he then threw the yellow KINGS OF KANSAS T-shirt. Asked if that might cost him some votes in Lawrence, Brownback cracked, “Well, I’m not up for re-election.” He went on to suggest that the major basketball programs in the state meet annually in a preseason doubleheader, so as to avoid the Sunflower State stalemate that kept Kansas and Wichita State apart since 1993.

“Today’s was really a family feud that’s been postponed for 23 years,” Brownback said. “I’m hopeful that the two start playing regularly. A cradle of basketball tournament, something that would get them playing more often. It just had a very different feel, the game did. This one was like something could be birthed here, a great basketball rivalry.”

Beyond an executive order, it is doubtful anything will move Kansas off the scheduling position it has held for more than two decades. Sunday did not help; instead, it reinforced the reason why these two programs have been strangers for so long.  

“Who knows,” Marshall said. “I’m fine letting the series lay the way it is right now. The series is good with me at this point.”

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No, no one will soon forget what happened Sunday, when Wichita State imposed its will on mighty Kansas. And Marshall knew it, too. He walked across the floor and winked to his wife, Lynn, with a grin on his face as fans chanted “You don’t want to go to war with the Shockers.” His program had been to a Final Four more recently than Kansas but this game reset the way people within state borders thought. No telling if he will be around for the next meeting, because it would seem prudent that programs across the country, including one in Austin, Texas, recognize what his team has done and then did to Kansas on Sunday.

But for now he’d wring every drop out of the moment.

“I’m pretty sure Wichita is on fire right now,” Marshall said.

So it was back to the Sweet 16, with Notre Dame on tap Thursday in Cleveland and a possible tournament rematch with Kentucky after that. But first things first.

Earlier Sunday, Lynn Marshall reminded her husband of a most important matter at hand: They were to plant tomatoes on Monday. The Marshalls are assiduous gardeners. Lynn had checked the temperatures and ensured that they had proper weatherproof wrapping on hand. She had laid down the mulch already to keep the ground warm. All that was left was to put the plant in the ground and watch it grow. This was, after all, Wichita in March. You reap what you sow.

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