Monday, February 20, 2012

Plenty at stake for Missouri-Kansas on Saturday

Kansas’ Phog Allen Fieldhouse has seen plenty of huge games since it opened in 1955. When the No. 3 Missouri Tigers come rolling into Lawrence for their game Saturday (3 p.m. on CBS), it will be one the biggest in the old building’s history.

Missouri (25-2, 12-2 in Big 12 play through Sunday) will battle Kansas in a game fraught with storylines, drama, atmosphere. March and its NCAA Tournament are the ultimate in college basketball, and both teams could make deep runs regardless of who wins. But Saturday’s Border War game on national TV is about as good as college basketball’s regular season gets. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what’s on the line in Saturday’s game.

The rivalry

As we know, the rivalry traces its roots back to the Civil War, and the schools’ athletic teams have been playing for over a century.

Kansas has the decided edge in the all-time basketball series, leading 171-95. But Missouri won a thrilling 74-71 game in Columbia earlier this year, and to sweep the last regular season matchups before Missouri heads to the Southeastern Conference would give the Tigers a measure of pride.

It would also halt Missouri’s maddening inability to win in Allen Fieldhouse, where they’ve been battling the Jayhawks since Wilt Chamberlain wore the blue and white. The Tigers last won there in coach Norm Stewart’s final season, in 1999, losing 12 straight in Lawrence since then.

(Missouri is 14-42 against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. Stewart was 11-21 in the Phog, all other Tiger coaches are 3-21 there. Before Stewart: 3-9, Stewart: 11-21, post-Stewart: 0-12.)

NCAA Tournament seeding

Currently, most projections have Missouri as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and Kansas as a No. 2 seed. Both are outstanding seeds that could make a trip to the Final Four much easier. But there is an extra level of intrigue as to which team gets a No. 1 seed, because that team would almost surely get to play its Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games in St. Louis, giving either a decided homecourt advantage. For the team that gets a No. 2 seed? See you in Arizona, most likely. Send me a picture of a cactus.

Missouri has the better overall record, but Kansas played a stronger nonconference schedule, and strength of schedule counts plenty with the tournament selection committee. Saturday is a great opportunity for either team.

The Big 12 title

Kansas fans will (understandably) tell you over and over that they’ve won 54 conference titles in their basketball program’s storied history, including at least a share of seven straight Big 12 titles. Missouri last won a conference title in 1994, in the old Big Eight. Missouri would love to take that league title as a parting gift en route to the SEC. On behalf of the Big 12, Kansas would love to stop that.

With both teams 12-2 in Big 12 play through Sunday, this game will likely decide the conference title race. Each team has a few other challenging games left, but the fate of the conference championship rests on Saturday’s showdown.

Tigers and Jayhawks in old Allen Fieldhouse with the stakes about as high as can be. Kansas has just one loss there in last five years. The Jayhawks have national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson and an outstanding coach in Bill Self. But this is a special Missouri team that has outpaced expectations all season. Saturday can’t arrive soon enough.

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