Captain Ahab had his white whale, the Red Sox have the Yankees, and the Missouri Tigers have the Kansas Jayhawks.
And this Saturday (8 p.m. on ESPN), the Border War matchup will somehow be even more intense, which would be like Death Valley somehow becoming hotter. Missouri’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference means this is the last annual trip for the Jayhawks to Columbia, by miles the most anticipated home game each season. Kansas’ decision not to play Missouri at all in retaliation for that move means this season’s matchups carry the enduring weight of a closing statement, the sunset for the Border War until further notice.
This ancient feud is always heated, but the two universities’ public spat over conference realignment and the ending of the series until tensions cool have upped the ante. Also, both teams are in the top 10. Kansas has a one-game lead over Missouri (20-2, 7-2 in Big 12 play) and Baylor in the conference title race through Sunday. The Jayhawks have won at least a share of seven straight Big 12 titles. Missouri would love winning its first conference title since 1994 and leaving the Big 12 with the championship trophy as a souvenir.
Even with the Mizzou Arena homecourt advantage (where Missouri is 62-3 over the last four years, but 1-2 against Kansas), beating the Jayhawks will be a challenge. Kansas has an outstanding coach, Bill Self, and the Big 12’s best player, the relentless Thomas Robinson. Neutralizing Robinson inside with Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore will be critical, and if Missouri’s deep stable of guards can force Tyshawn Taylor into making turnovers, a problem that has plagued him at times, Saturday night could be a lot of fun for Tiger fans.
The jacked crowd should give the Tigers a lift, but my experience tells me Kansas will also rise to the occasion. In 2007, Missouri’s pregame video showed highlights of Missouri’s back-to-back home wins over the Jayhawks in the two previous years, along with Dorothy’s famous Wizard of Oz line about not being in Kansas anymore. Self smirked at the video from the sidelines, and then sicced Julian Wright on the Tigers to the tune of 33 points and 12 rebounds.
I have been to many Missouri basketball games, and the two Tiger wins over Kansas in Columbia I witnessed rank among the best moments. I was a freshman when Kansas’ Christian Moody missed two free throws with less than a second remaining in a tie game, with the crowd thundering and the pullout student section bleachers shaking. Missouri won that 2006 game in overtime.
Then there was the 2009 win, my senior year, when Zaire Taylor bounced in a game-winning shot that nearly blew the roof off Mizzou Arena. Tiger fans could go on and on about their memories from this special rivalry.
It is Kansas wheat farmers against Missouri soybean farmers. Kansas’ storied history against Missouri’s stubborn refusal to back down. Sunflowers vs. Show-Me.
The scene Saturday night will be electric, a fitting, high-stakes tribute to over a century of Missouri-Kansas clashes in Columbia.