Kansas-Missouri, the so-called "Border War," has been one of the truly special rivalries in college basketball. That's why the Tigers' 74-71 victory on Saturday night felt so bittersweet. Beginning next season, Missouri will compete in the SEC, meaning that Saturday's game was the last scheduled meeting to take place in Columbia. They will play again in Lawrence on Feb. 25, and possibly a third time in the Big 12 tournament. Beyond that, however, the future is uncertain.
It's not easy to see something this good come to an end. Throughout the game, ESPN's Dick Vitale repeatedly implored the schools to keep playing even after they're in different leagues. During the College Gameday pregame show, Jay Bilas went to so far as to assume the game will happen in the very near future. "They're gonna play," he said. "Whether it's next year or the year after, they're gonna play again."
I'm not so sure I share Bilas' optimism. Nor do I share Vitale's hope. I'm not just okay with seeing this rivalry come to an end. I actually want it to.
Why am I being such a killjoy? Because as much as I love a great rivalry, I loathe conference expansion even more. This has been the worst trend to hit college sports in a long, long time. Missouri's decision to go to the SEC was bad for college sports, bad for the Big 12 and certainly bad for Kansas. (I believe it will prove to be bad for Missouri, too, but only time will tell.) Coming on the heels of Texas A&M's decision to likewise bolt for the SEC, Missouri's defection almost put the Big 12 out of business. If the conference had dissolved, Kansas would have been in a tough spot. KU does not have an elite football program, so it would have been forced to beg leagues like the ACC and Big East to shoehorn the Jayhawks into their ranks. It would have been a sad moment for a proud school.
Missouri's basketball coach, Frank Haith, and its athletic director, Mike Alden, have said they want the series to continue. Their counterparts across the border, however, are not playing along. "It will not happen in the immediate future," Kansas coach Bill Self said after the game on Saturday night. "They chose to be someplace else. It's fine. It's their prerogative. If it is better for them, so be it, but if you choose to be somewhere else, you leave a situation behind that is not the same as what it was when you were in it."
That was a more diplomatic version of the answer that Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey gave last fall when asked if her team would continue to play Texas A&M: "If a man wants to divorce me and says our relationship has no value to him, and then he asks me if he can sleep with me, the answer is no," she said.
If Missouri is going to convince Kansas to change its mind, it's going to have to overcome more than just the hurt feelings of a jilted lover. The hard truth is, Missouri needs this game significantly more than Kansas does. The Jayhawks have won three national championships and have been to 13 Final Fours. Missouri has never even been to one. Kansas can recruit on a national scale, while Missouri has to focus on the Midwest. If injected with truth serum, I'll bet Haith would tell you the move to the SEC is making his job harder. So why would Self do something that will only make it easier?
Besides, it's not like Kansas has trouble scheduling nonconference games. The Jayhawks still have two years left in the Champions Classic that will rotate them with Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State. They are a perennially plum choice for all the major Thanksgiving and Christmas week tournaments. Their decision to participate in an intersectional matchup guarantees that it will be broadcast on ESPN or CBS. If Kansas agreed to play Missouri, it would be providing the Tigers with a national platform they currently lack. Hard to see the upside in that for the Jayhawks.
But think of the Kansas fans, Vitale urged. They want this game to continue, right? Actually, no. "I've heard from a lot of our coaches, our administrators, our larger donors and our fan base. The overwhelming majority ask me not to play Missouri at this time," KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger told me. "They feel that by leaving for another conference, they harmed our league -- our family, so to speak. They don't want to reward that."
Will this series resume someday, as Bilas predicts? I suppose so. After all, Auburn and Alabama quit playing each other in football back in 1907. It only took 41 years -- and a threat by the Alabama House of Representatives to cut funding -- for those teams to agree to play each other again. I doubt it will take four decades for Kansas and Missouri to resume their series, but I also doubt it will happen anytime soon. Nor should it. Missouri had every right to act in its self-interest, but now so does Kansas. Hey, it's just business, right?
• We now have irrefutable evidence that Fab Melo is more important to Syracuse than anybody once realized. When I spoke with Jim Boeheim last week, he emphasized that while the team missed Melo's defensive presence during his three-game absence, the Orange's offense suffered even more because so many of their points come off Melo's defense. You'll notice that Syracuse scored 95 points in his return against St. John's. That's not a coincidence.
• UConn associate head coach George Blaney, no doubt acting under Jim Calhoun's direction, finally did the right thing and started Ryan Boatright, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier together for the Huskies' game against Seton Hall. The reason that move hadn't been made beforehand was that Calhoun was concerned that by playing such a small lineup, he would hurt the Huskies' defense. But the Huskies' perimeter defense was pretty lame anyway, and they were having a terrible time scoring points. This lineup won't help UConn stop people, but it will give them a better chance to outscore them.
• Here's another downside to conference expansion: When the ACC adds Syracuse and Pittsburgh, its teams will play 18 regular season games. That means fewer opportunities for programs to schedule nonconference matchups, and less incentive to play good teams when they do. (Deep sigh.)
• I'm a little surprised freshman forward LaQuinton Ross has been getting so little playing time since joining Ohio State at the start of second semester. Ross is averaging just four minutes per game and didn't play in four of the Buckeyes' last six contests. I didn't expect him to come in and dominate, but I figured he'd play at least a little bit.
• Two questions for Kansas regarding its loss at Missouri: How does Thomas Robinson not even touch the ball on those last three possessions? And what in the world happened to Jeff Withey? He wanted no part of that game.
• When Harrison Barnes came out of high school, I thought his passing would be one of his best assets. So I'm pretty stunned to see that he has a grand total of 22 assists this season. He's too good to be this one-dimensional.
• If I had to fill out an All-America ballot today, Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan would be on my first team. There are not many guards in the country who can change a game so quickly with his scoring.
• I'm officially withdrawing my insistence that Florida run its offense through Patric Young. When coach Billy Donovan has to publicly talk about all the things he does to get Young to play with energy, something is seriously wrong. I understand Young has had an issue with his ankle, but the real problem is he doesn't have a motor commensurate with his muscle. The Gators managed to beat Vanderbilt even with Young limited to two points in 14 minutes because of foul trouble.
• Is there anything better than watching a game you've recorded but don't know the outcome to? I don't think I need to watch a live sporting event for the rest of my life.
• There's no shame in Creighton's loss at Northern Iowa, but one thing that did get exposed was the Bluejays' suspect defense. Creighton forced UNI to commit just two turnovers, and the Panthers went 11-of-21 from three-point range. Creighton is not going to beat many good teams with its D, but it sure can put points on the board.
• I know it just lost by two points at Wyoming, but just so you know: I'm a big UNLV guy.
• That was a very important comeback win over Xavier by Memphis on Saturday, maybe the most important win for any team over the weekend. If the Tigers beat the teams they should the rest of the way, they will be in the NCAA tournament. That would be pretty remarkable considering they lost two starters to season-ending injuries. Keep that in mind next time you want to rip Josh Pastner.
• Don't you just love college hoops? Notre Dame freshman guard Pat Connaughton hadn't scored in double-figures once in his last 14 games, but hung 23 points on Marquette in a 17-point win on Saturday. Bet that wasn't in Buzz Williams' scouting report.
• We all know Florida State plays great defense, but the reason for the Seminoles' surge over the last month is the improvement of 6-foot-5 senior point guard Luke Loucks. When I saw this team in person playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, I thought Loucks would be a liability, but he has been running the offense with confidence and precision of late.
• I had the great pleasure of watching Harvard play in person again 10 days ago, when the Crimson beat Yale by 30 points. This team plays really, really good defense. You know who they remind me of? Butler. They may by Ivy Leaguers, but the Crimson is sneaky tough.
• Louisville freshman forward Chane Behanan played by far the best game of his young career during Saturday's win over Rutgers. He made his first 10 field goals en route to a 23-point, 11-rebound performance. Behanan won't do that every game, obviously, but it goes without saying that the Cardinals would greatly benefit if he could give them more consistent production.
• I hope you all read about how Big 12 referee Darron George was trampled during the court storm at Iowa State following the Cyclones' win over Kansas. George cut his hand badly and chipped a bone. It's only a matter of time before something truly unfortunate (like a fight) or even tragic happens in one of these situations. Please, enough is enough.
• And didn't you love how Missouri senior guards Kim English and Marcus Denmon ordered their own fans NOT to rush the court after they beat Kansas? Their explanation: We're home. We're supposed to win. That's how winners think, people.
• I can't imagine how frustrating it is to be an Illinois fan these days. How do you beat Michigan State and lose to Northwestern in the same week? Most inconsistent team I've seen in years.
• So let me get this straight. Arizona loses Kevin Parrom for the year and then goes to the Bay Area and sweeps Cal and Stanford? Yup. Got it. That's the Pac-12 for ya.
• Talk about a fine line. Think how different Indiana's season would feel right now if the Hoosiers had lost to Kentucky and Ohio State. Those were great wins, but very close shaves. The bottom line is, Indiana is still a young team, and its deficiencies at point guard have been revealed in the last few weeks. Tom Crean has a very good point guard coming next year in Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell -- I've seen him play; he's a jet -- but he'll still be a 5-11 freshman point guard. I'm afraid IU fans should expect more growing pains next season.
• Middle Tennessee State lost its first Sun Belt game over the weekend, falling on the road to a very good Denver team by 15 points. Since those teams play in different divisions, it was their only meeting of the regular season, but if they play each other in the Sun Belt tournament final, it will be appointment viewing. And believe me, you do not want your favorite team meeting the winner in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
• On the day I visited Duke last week, the coaches tried to light a fire under the players by calling a 5 a.m. team meeting. The meeting lasted for three hours, and I'm told Coach K delivered quite the harsh critique. Later that day Coach K put the players through a rigorous practice. When I interviewed Austin Rivers afterward, his knees were bright red from floor burns. ("Loose ball drills," he said cheerfully.) So it's surprising, to say the least, that the Blue Devils came out on Sunday for a league game at home and weren't ready to play. That does not bode well for their game at North Carolina on Wednesday night.
• I generally think that lack of depth is an overrated concern. A short bench can be problematic with injuries or foul trouble, but kids don't get as tired as we think. Still, when you look at the SEC stats and see that three of the top five leaders in minutes play for Mississippi State, you have to wonder if it will catch up with them at some point.
• San Diego State is 13 for 60 (21.7 percent) from three-point range over its last three games. The Aztecs are going to have to do better than that if they're going to win at UNLV on Saturday.
• When I hear a player who isn't vocal described as a "leader by example," I interpret that as saying that he's "not a leader." If you don't talk, you're not leading.
• I'm similarly not impressed when I hear a guy is really good and really competitive at video games. Ditto for the guys who brag about how many DVDs they have. I'm waiting to read about the player who brags about how many books he has read.
• In the wake of the blown call at the end of the Syracuse-West Virginia game, some people have called for goaltending to be added to the list of reviewable plays, if only for the last few minutes. John Adams, the NCAA's coordinator of officials, has said that the rules committee might consider this. I hope it never comes to pass. We already have more than enough replays during games without adding judgment calls. Besides, this is not football -- play continues in this sport. What happens if a referee misses a goaltending call, but after the "block," the other team comes down and hits a game-winning shot? Do you go back to the replay and wave off the entire sequence?
Also, let's stop with the refs-work-too-many-games complaint every time we see a missed call. Just because a guy gets a good night's sleep doesn't ensure that he'll get everything right. Besides, one of the referees working the Syracuse-West Virginia game was Karl Hess. Ask any coach in the Big East and he'll tell you that if he walks into a game and sees Hess has been assigned, he is very pleased.
• Believe it or not, I'm about to pass along a nugget about Iowa State that doesn't include Royce White: The Cyclones are one of the top three-point shooting teams in the country. They're ranked second in the Big 12 in three-point percentage (38.5) and first in threes made per game (8.9). Ironically, that's despite the fact that Chris Allen, the transfer from Michigan State, has been making a career-low 36.4 percent from behind the arc.
• Penn State 6-1 junior point guard Tim Frazier has to be on the short list of great players on bad teams. Frazier leads the Big Ten (and is 11th nationally) in assists (6.3), is second in both scoring (18.3) and steals (2.13) and is eighth in free throw percentage (75.5).
• ESPN's BracketBusters extravaganza is a great idea for many reasons. One of them is the fact that the home team is required to play at the road team's arena during the following season. And kudos to the Boys in Bristol for assigning Saint Mary's play at Murray State. Gonna be a big, big game.
• You're a Michigan fan and you have a choice: Trey Burke as a freshman or Darius Morris as a junior? As much as I love Burke, you have to go with Morris, right?
• Marquette sophomore guard Vander Blue may not be the scorer people that many thought he'd be coming out of high school (the kid can NOT shoot), but I love the way he crashes the boards. Blue has doubled his rebound average from last season, and is averaging nearly eight per game over his last three contests.
• I'm usually the guy who argues that it's better for a team to lose a game than go into the NCAA tournament undefeated. It's hard enough to win six games without the added pressure. My theory, however, does not apply to Murray State. These guys know they are not going to win a championship, so they might as well do something special by going into the tournament with a perfect record. It would certainly be a great storyline for college basketball.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Ohio State (3)
4. Missouri (5)
5. Kansas (4)
6. Baylor (6)
7. North Carolina (7)
8. Michigan State (9)
9. Florida (12)
10. Florida State (14)
11. UNLV (10)
12. Michigan (11)
13. Murray State (13)
14. Georgetown (15)
15. Duke (8)
16. Virginia (18)
17. Mississippi State (16)
18. Marquette (17)
19. San Diego State (19)
20. Wisconsin (20)
21. Saint Mary's (24)
22. Creighton (23)
23. Indiana (21)
24. Notre Dame (NR)
25. Wichita State (NR)
Dropped out: West Virginia (22), Gonzaga (25)
There was less movement on my ballot this week than at any other point during this season. Most losses suffered by teams in my top 25 were in close road games. One exception was Marquette, which got blitzed at Notre Dame, but I had to consider that the Golden Eagles were playing without their best remaining big man, sophomore forward Davante Gardner. (Unlike the team's other center, Chris Otule, Gardner is going to return soon.) I didn't want to punish Marquette too much, but I did want to reward Notre Dame for its fourth straight quality win. So the Irish make my ballot for the first time.
I also don't believe that a voter should punish a team for losing on the road to a team that is ranked above it. Last week, Indiana lost at Michigan, Michigan lost at Michigan State, Wisconsin lost at Ohio State and Virginia lost at Florida State. I still think Kansas is a little better than Missouri, but Missouri won, so I flipped those two. And if a team loses by a bucket on the road to a good conference team, it's also hard to penalize them. That's why UNLV (which fell at Wyoming) and Creighton (lost to Northern Iowa on a buzzer-beating three) didn't get dinged too badly. In fact, Creighton moved up a spot due to my decision to drop West Virginia, which barely beat Providence in overtime to avoid its fourth straight loss.
The team that got dropped the most this week is Duke. I've been sensing for the last several weeks that the Blue Devils weren't quite as good as their ranking, but until they lost I didn't have an opportunity to let my ballot reflect that.
Elsewhere, I wouldn't say I've totally given up on Gonzaga, but in the wake of the Bulldogs' blowout loss at BYU, I don't foresee putting them back into my top 25. Even if they beat St. Mary's at home, I wouldn't rank them because, well, they're supposed to beat teams at home. Gonzaga has some nice players, but this team is just too young and lacking physical strength to be ranked right now.
I had a lot of good options at No. 25, but, as usual, I gave extra deference to a mid-major team. Wichita State, which is now tied with Creighton for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference, has quietly had an excellent season. The Shockers have an opportunity to make some real noise when they visit Creighton on Saturday. The Bluejays won in Wichita on Dec. 31 by seven points, so I'm very much looking forward to the rematch.
Other teams I considered ranking: Iowa State, Temple, Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee State, Weber State, VCU, Cleveland State, Harvard and Iona. Aside from Iowa State, which will play Baylor twice and Missouri once (on the road), those teams will not have the chance to play games where a win would vault them onto my ballot. Thus, they likely finish the season unranked. But that doesn't mean they will be unloved. Not in this space, anyway.