In this Christmas season of fairies and elves,
We always need something to puzzle ourselves.
We have been told it is Santa, but we read it as St. Nick.
Now, is there one or two or is this just another NCAA trick?
Let's look in the bag to get a hint
To solve the mystery of this kindly old gent.
The tall portly one is old Teddy.
And the short craggy one is Jack.
One head is stuffed.
The other is cracked.
This little poem, hastily composed by Missouri Coach Norm Stewart on the eve of last week's annual Big Eight holiday tournament, pretty well sums up how six of the coaches in the conference must have felt, deep down, as they brought their teams into Kansas City's Kemper Arena for a four-day civil war that seemed destined to boil down to Ted Owens' Kansas team vs. Jack Hartman's Kansas State squad in the finals.
To be fair, Nebraska, off to its best start in history (10-0), also had a chance to win. So did Oklahoma, which was fresh from a pair of victories over Penn and South Carolina. But, just as the rest of the Big Eight feared, in Friday night's championship game it was KU against KSU, and 17,005 screaming fans—10,000 more than the hometown NBA Kings usually draw and the tournament's third SRO crowd—turned out to see the powerful Jayhawks beat the pesky Wildcats 67-62.
True, the game did not decide much. Counting the Big Eight's round-robin league schedule and a postseason tournament instituted last year, this was only the first of three or, possibly, four games that Kansas and Kansas State will play against each other this season. Nonetheless, most of the folks in Kansas City—except the losing coaches—clearly felt that there was no better way to escape the post-Christmas blahs and get ready for the football bowl games than by watching the Jayhawks and Wildcats thrash it out. After all, nowhere else in the country was there a holiday tournament that featured a matchup—intrastate or otherwise—as good as this one.
Both teams came into the game with 9-2 records, and in their 32nd Big Eight tournament they were separated by only one victory—Kansas State at 67-28 and Kansas at 66-29. The Wildcats, whose starting lineup averages only 6'4" and whose bench is composed of You & Me & Bobby McGee, led 38-26 at halftime but were ultimately done in by a lack of rebounding, poor foul shooting (eight of 19) and a resurgent Donnie Von Moore. Kansas' 6'9" second-string forward is just beginning to get his game back together following a severe case of pneumonia two years ago that required chest surgery to save his life. It was Von Moore who sparked the Jayhawks' comeback with eight quick points in the second half, and his game-high total of 20 earned him the tournament's Most Outstanding Performer award.
The victory gave Kansas local bragging rights, if only until Jan. 21, when the teams meet for game No. 2 in Lawrence. More important, it eased the pressure on Owens, who was in danger of losing to Kansas State for the fourth straight time. Kansas beat the Wildcats in last year's holiday tournament, only to lose to them the next three times. As a result, State walked off with the 1977 Big Eight championship and the conference postseason tournament title.
This did not exactly overwhelm Kansas' spoiled alumni, who rarely mention Owens and his .682 winning percentage in the same breath with Phog Allen. Having lost the conference championship two seasons in a row, Owens was given a message last spring that, in essence, said: put some speed into your lineup and get rid of your assistant coaches or you'll be out of work. So Duncan Reid, who had arrived at Kansas four years ago with one of his high school players and subsequent Jayhawk star, Norm Cook, resigned, and Owens also had no choice but to ask his close friend Sam Miranda to step down to make room for a Wichita high school coach, Lafayette Norwood, who just happened to bring along his prize pupil, 6'2" Guard Darnell Valentine.
Supposedly all wrapped up by North Carolina, Valentine so overjoyed the Jayhawks with his unexpected presence that Clint Johnson, a senior, willingly surrendered his No. 14 jersey (Feb. 14 is Valentine's Day) to the newcomer. Valentine leads Big Eight teams in steals and makes breakneck assaults on the basket that have transformed the usually stolid Jayhawks into the running, pressing team Owens has been promising Kansas fans ever since Jo Jo White left Lawrence in 1969.
Like top-ranked Kentucky, which escaped with a 73-66 victory over Kansas in December, the Jayhawks, whose other loss was a 78-72 defeat by No. 3-rated Arkansas, come at an opponent in waves. Owens used 13 players in the first half of Kansas' 96-49 opening-round slaughter of Missouri, which equaled the Tigers' worst defeat ever. Oklahoma seemed on the way to an upset in the semifinals before Von Moore and Johnson helped erase a 13-point halftime deficit and Valentine came up with a steal and a three-point play that enabled Kansas to survive 79-76.
K-State figured to be even tougher, especially because the Wildcats' flamboyant 6'5" sophomore Curtis Redding had scored 27, 37 and 27 points in the three wins over Kansas last year. State had reached the finals by cruising past Colorado 82-72, as Redding pumped in 30, and by stopping Nebraska's string 69-60, as Redding put in 26. Asked how he expected to cover Redding, who came to Kansas State from Brooklyn's Canarsie High with Canarsie Coach Mark Reiner as part of another package deal, Owens replied, "With a blanket."
And Redding was kept under cover by Von Moore and 6'10" Ken Koenigs. It was this same twosome that got hot and rescued the Jayhawks from another poor first half. Von Moore hit three quick bank shots and a dunk that cut the Kansas State margin to 48-44. Then Koenigs' fourth basket of the second half, a jumper from the foul line, gave Kansas its first lead of the game by a 53-52 score. The Jayhawks sank their last six free throws to seal the victory.
It was not a work of art. Kansas committed 27 turnovers to 14 for State and was held well below its 91.8 scoring average. But because of Kansas' 52-34 margin in rebounding and the fact that Valentine and Von Moore did not seem to be breathing hard at the end, the Jayhawks' five-point victory somehow appeared more convincing than last year's 81-64 holiday win.
"I've always said that playing Kansas three times in one year was too much, and that four times was ridiculous," says Hartman. "And it's particularly true this year when they're so big and deep and when we have such a small margin for error against them. Only time will tell, but we could've beaten them tonight if we had kept them asleep."
Redding, despite his 8-for-21 shooting, was typically unrestrained in his optimism. "Tell the nation that the 'Cats will be back," he said, while grumbling about how his 72 points and 26 rebounds far exceeded Von Moore's totals. "Tell them that we will definitely get 'em the next time."
Or maybe the next. Or the next.