Omaha, Neb. It has been 22 long years since Sunflower State schools Kansas University and Wichita State have met on the basketball court.
“I haven’t even been around for 20 years,” 19-year-old New Orleans native/KU freshman Kelly Oubre Jr. said Saturday, putting in perspective the length of time between clashes.
“The state of Kansas ... everybody wants to see this matchup. You’re going to get it tomorrow, so hopefully they (Kansans) tune in and watch.”
Oubre on Saturday in a cramped CenturyLink Center locker room expressed the sentiment that today’s 4:15 p.m., NCAA Midwest Regional Round of 32 match between KU (27-8) and WSU (29-4) is huge simply because the winner advances to the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Cleveland.
The fact it is WSU and the renewal of a dormant rivalry ... well, that’s there, too.
Images from the KU men's basketball team during interviews Saturday, March 21, 2015 at the CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
“A lot of people are amped up for this game. A lot of people are talking about it, Tweeting us about it. This is the game the fans want to see. This is the game they are going to get,” Oubre said. “It’s going to be a great game. They are a great team.
“Playing Kansas basketball is the most important thing. We’re focusing on trying to get this win and move on. We want to make a deep run at this thing.”
The No. 2-seeded Jayhawks, who lead the all-time series between the teams, 12-2, pounded No. 7-seed WSU in the last meeting, 103-54, on Jan. 6, 1993, in Allen Fieldhouse.
That was a different era — one in which the Shockers were a bit down on their luck. Things have changed at WSU the past few seasons.
Wichita State went 30-9 and reached the Final Four in 2013 and followed that with a 35-1 campaign last season, the only loss coming to Kentucky in the third round. WSU is 29-4 this season — 17-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I’m not a hater or anything,” KU junior Jamari Traylor said, asked about the fact WSU reached the Final Four the same year KU lost in the Sweet 16. “It wasn’t like I was mad because it was them and not us. We did what we did. We had to grow with it, and that’s what we did. We’re looking to this year, getting ready to play these guys.”
Traylor has paid attention to WSU’s feats.
“They’ve been making some great runs. I’ve been following them a lot,” the Chicago forward said. “They’ve got a great team, a great coach (Gregg Marshall). It’ll be a great task to beat those guys. We know it won’t be anything easy.”
Traylor worked a camp last summer with WSU starters Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton.
“I follow Ron on Twitter, maybe I know him a little more than anybody else,” Traylor said. “All those guys ...we got to hang out a little bit. They were cool. Fred was down-to-earth. Ron was cool. Cotton was cool.”
Baker, a 6-foot-4 junior, averages 15.0 points a game, while VanVleet, a 6-foot junior, averages 13.1 ppg, and Cotton, a 6-3 senior, contributes 9.6 ppg.
“I feel this will mean a lot to us, a lot to the fans. We’ve got to compete, play hard and make sure we come out with the win,” Traylor said. “We can’t let this game mean more to anybody than us. We’ve got to want it just as bad as anybody else.”
KU junior Perry Ellis of Wichita was asked over and over Saturday if this game meant more to him than any other in his career, simply because it was against his hometown school.
He would not go that far.
“It’s a big game in the tournament. We’re out here trying to compete and win,” he said.
“I’ve never thought about that, man,” he added, asked if he always wanted to face the Shockers. “Whoever is on our schedule is who I’m looking forward to playing. I have no control of the schedule. I like to play anybody. Basketball is fun, just to go out and compete. I don’t overthink who we are playing. I’ve always been like that.”
Ellis, KU’s leading scorer (13.7 ppg) and rebounder (6.8 rpg), got to know several of the Shocker players in recruiting. The blue chipper had Wichita State on his list of schools throughout the recruiting process.
“They recruited me hard. They were at all the games,” he said. “I got to speak with their coaches a lot. They were all great guys. I wanted to get away from home a little bit. I thought Kansas was the perfect fit for me. It felt like home for me.”
He does have a close buddy who plays for the Shockers. Wichita Heights teammate Evan Wessel (4.1 ppg) starts for WSU.
“He’s a great player, smart player,” Ellis said, noting he hangs out with Wessel in the summers but doesn’t speak to him much during the season. “He’s a great kid.”
Ellis said a huge motivating factor today, maybe even more than the opponent, is the fact KU lost its second game in the tournament a year ago — to Stanford.
“The feeling we had after that game ... I feel we still feel that,” Ellis said. “The guys who experienced that ... we want to make a huge run in this tournament.”
The man who will devise today’s game plan, coach Bill Self, said a key will be trying to contain WSU’s talented guards.
“VanVleet is a great shooter and a great lay-up shooter,” Self said. “I coached one guy I considered a great layup shooter, Sherron (Collins). VanVleet is the same way. He can get to the rim.
“Their guards are all terrific. They don’t beat themselves. They take care of the ball, play the game all coaches hope their teams play, do a good job of ball and body movement. It’ll be a fun game. They’ve proven they can play with anybody in the country.”
The fact the Jayhawks haven’t played the Shockers in so long makes this game one that perhaps will be remembered forever. Self was asked if it would be an “honor” to win such a contest for the ages.
“I haven’t thought of it like that. I’d say it would be an honor if we win. If we don’t win, I don’t give a crap if anybody ever talks about it,” Self said. “I think it may be talked about with fans and things like that for a while ... the quality of play and how the game is performed is what will be talked about, if in fact it is a great game. I do think it has the potential to be that.”