OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — It took the NCAA Tournament to finally bring Kansas and Wichita State together.
The two schools separated by a couple hours of Sunflower State highway have not played in more than two decades, despite their national pedigrees. But after the second-seeded Jayhawks cruised past New Mexico State and the No. 7 seed Shockers handled a stiff test from Indiana on Friday, there is no getting around the tantalizing matchup now.
The winner gets a date in the Midwest Region’s Sweet 16. The loser goes home.
“A lot of houses are going to be divided,” said Wichita State star Ron Baker, who grew up in Scott City, Kansas. “Obviously, these types of games don’t happen a whole lot.”
The teams first played in 1908, but they have only met 14 times. The last of those games occurred in 1993, nearly two years before Jayhawks freshman Kelly Oubre Jr. was born.
The Shockers have periodically tried to schedule a regular-season series, but every time they get rebuffed. Associated athletic director Darron Boatright said he understands where Kansas is coming from — it doesn’t do the Jayhawks much good to play in-state games anywhere other than Allen Fieldhouse, especially one they have a decent chance of losing.
That has hardly appeased Shockers coach Gregg Marshall, who once labeled the school the “Chickenhawks” for their refusal to play. And it sure hasn’t calmed down Wichita State fans that still lament the way Kansas is put upon a pedestal by the college basketball establishment.
After all, the Shockers have been to the Final Four more recently.
“I don’t know where I was 23 years ago. I was a neophyte in coaching, I can assure you that,” Marshall said Friday night. “It’s an opportunity, a wonderful opportunity. And whoever plays the best is going to win.”
The Jayhawks vs. the Shockers isn’t the only intriguing matchup in Omaha, though.
In the other game Sunday, top-seeded Wisconsin will try to punch its ticket to the West Region semifinals when it takes on Oregon in a rematch from last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Badgers pulled away from Coastal Carolina on Friday night, while the Ducks needed 27 points from Pac-12 player of the year Joseph Young to turn back Oklahoma State.
“Wisconsin’s a good team,” Young said, “but we’re just focused on what we have to do.”
The Badgers were a No. 2 seed a year ago when they played the seventh-seeded Ducks in the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. With what amounted to a homecourt advantage and a big night from Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers rallied from a 12-point halftime hole for an 85-77 victory.
“Even though we were up 14 or whatever it was last year, we’ve got to keep playing,” said the Ducks’ Dillon Brooks. “We let up second half and Wisconsin came back. If we had won that game, we could have been in the Final Four. Who knows?”
Instead, the Badgers reached the Final Four before losing to Kentucky.
“We know they’re a good team. They made it to their conference tournament finals,” said Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky said. “They have a lot of good players on their team. It starts with Joseph Young. It’s going to be a battle again, just like last year.”
HOT TICKET: There may be empty seats at other NCAA Tournament venues, but the two sessions in Omaha were packed to the rafters. And given the proximity of Wichita State and Kansas, along with the way Wisconsin travels, expect Sunday to be an even hotter ticket.
SENIOR SENDOFFS: Several college careers came to an end on the floor of the CenturyLink Center on Friday, including those of Oklahoma State forward Le’Bryan Nash, Indiana guard Nick Zeisloft, Coastal Carolina guards Warren Gillis and Josh Cameron, and the New Mexico State trio of Daniel Mullings, Tshilidzi Nephawe and Remi Barry.
Nash, who goes down in Cowboys history as their fourth-leading scorer, was choked up when asked to describe what it felt like for his four-year career to finally end.
“It hurts a lot, this being my last game,” he said. “I really played hard for OSU. I really want to win. I wanted to be known as a winner. Exiting like this, it hurts a lot.”
PERSONAL PERFORMANCES: Young didn’t have the only virtuoso performance Friday. Kaminsky had 27 points and 12 boards for the Badgers, Fred VanVleet poured in 27 points for Wichita State and Indiana counterpart Yogi Farrell scored 24 in a losing effort.
“Well, he’s an All-American. That’s the bottom line,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said of Kaminsky. “We tried everything. We pressed, we zoned, we manned. Nothing stopped him.”
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