I never thought I would say this, but Marcus Smart back flipping across the Jayhawk in Allen Fieldhouse last season may prove to be a good thing in the long run. Granted, at the time, it was thought of as a callous gesture; a sign of unprecedented disrespect for a top-ranked opponent in one of the most hallowed buildings in all of American sports.
But watching Kansas defeat Oklahoma State in the same building on Saturday, nearly a year after Smart’s gymnastics display and months following his comments about top-ranked recruit Andrew Wiggins, I couldn’t help but sense something different in the Phog. Underneath the physical play, heated altercations, all-star performances, and technical fouls, there was perhaps a hint of an honest-to-God rivalry.
Since Missouri bolted for the SEC following the 2011-2012 basketball season, many Kansas fans have speculated about the possibility of a new rivalry with another member of the Big 12 conference. Of course, nothing will ever replace the contempt Kansas feels toward Missouri, and Missouri toward Kansas. Still, even that basketball rivalry had not been much of a rivalry for some time.
Going back to the start of the new millennium, Kansas won 21 of their last 28 meetings. While Missouri did not win or share a regular season conference title during this time, Kansas has won or shared 11 since the start of the century, including the current streak of nine in a row. While Kansas has also appeared in four Final Fours since 2000, Missouri continues their infamous Final Four drought to this day. In a way, the final two games between the schools were instant classics, but both games felt more like a great final chapter than an incentive to keep playing.
This is why Saturday felt so refreshing…
For starters, both Kansas and Oklahoma State are very good right now. Both are legitimate top 15 teams, both schools were picked to share the Big 12 title before the season started, and each roster is loaded with talent. At any given time, there are at least three future lottery picks on the floor with Marcus Smart, Andrew Wiggins, and Joel Embiid.
Last season, Oklahoma State knocked off Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse while Kansas took a trip to Stillwater and won a thrilling double overtime game. On Saturday, Kansas built up a 20-point first half lead before the Cowboys came crawling back to bring it to within 1 with less than a minute to play. All three games came down to the final possession. There was no “upset,” no unmatched team heaving desperate three-pointers in a half-coached attempt to knock off a top program. It was just two great opponents pushing themselves to the next level for a conference title.
Even historically, Oklahoma State makes a very reputable foe. Though you would have to go back to the 1940’s to find their last national title, they boast two NCAA Championships and six Final Four appearances, including one as recent as 2004. They won a regular season conference title in 2004 and won conference tournaments in 2004 and 2005, all while making 9 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2000. Gallagher-Iba arena continues to be one of the most underrated college basketball venues in the country, and is the only basketball venue in the Big 12 conference older than Allen Fieldhouse (incidentally, the first game played in 1938 was a victory over the Kansas Jayhawks).
But before last season, everything was ancient history. Then Marcus Smart decided to celebrate a victory in an unconventional way, and a new rivalry started.
Not only have their recent games been close calls, but it’s pretty obvious from yesterday’s outing that the players absolutely despise each other. Before the game, Joel Embiid quipped on twitter, “Aaron Rodgers stopped by today to watch practice and show me how to do backflips.” At any moment in Saturday’s game, we were one shove away from an all-out brawl. There were three technical fouls called, plus a Flagrant 1 near the end of the game (prompted by some Oscar-worthy flopping by Marcus Smart).
Even when the whistle wasn’t blown, the game was rough. Bodies hit the deck, shots got swatted, and players got dunked on. Twice the officials had to call head coaches Bill Self and Travis Ford to the scorer’s table to talk things out. I imagined the conversations to be something like the old boxing cartoons: “Alright boys, I want a fair fight. So none of this [elbows one opponent], or this [elbows other opponent], or this [knocks both their heads together].”
It was a bloodbath from the start. But most importantly, it was bloodbath between two great teams; two programs with top talent and important histories. When Marcus Smart flipped across the Jayhawk, he wasn’t celebrating one win, he was firing the first shot – A shot that might carry ramifications long after he has left Stillwater. On Saturday, you could sense something different in the Phog. It was a new rivalry; and so far, it’s better than the old one.