Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
As I write this, the University of Kansas men’s basketball team is poised to begin their participation in the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s National Basketball Tournament. As a native Midwesterner, I am delighted. As a Big Twelve supporter, I am happy. As a Missouri fan, I am haunted by the dream of what might have been.
Missouri had a great season, one for the books. Under the inspired leadership of a new coach, Frank Haith, the Tigers learned the meaning of “team”; the importance of playing together with one shared vision, the prize at the end of the road.
Mizzou wasn’t on anybody’s poll as the season began. Having lost their “big man” before the season even started, they were forced into a guard-oriented offense that only promised difficulty against taller teams. However, the Tigers surprised everyone, except perhaps themselves. As the victories mounted, Missouri crept into the top 25, then the top 10, and against all possible odds, finished in the top 5 in all the polls. Although they lost the conference championship to the Jayhawks, Missouri roared back in the Big 12 Tournament and took home the trophy with a big win over Baylor in the final.
Fate (and Baylor) robbed the Tigers and Jayhawks of one last brawl in the conference tournament. But thanks to an unknown scheduler, the NCAA brackets were set up so that if both teams survived, they would meet in the final game, the one for all the marbles, the NCAA final.
But fate intervened once more. In the first round, Missouri ran into a Norfolk State team that played simply the best game of their entire lives, snuffing out the Tiger’s candle, and ending their season.
It was a heartbreaking loss, especially since Norfolk State was crushed in their next game. I’m sure I was not the only Mizzou fan who watched those ensuing games, convinced that the Tigers could have taken both Florida and Marquette. Louisville would have been the toughest opponent, but with luck and that inimitable will that marked their play, Missouri would have had a good chance at them as well.
That would have set up an NCAA Final for the ages.
Missouri versus Kansas. The oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi, one that saw its birth not on courts and gridirons, but on the battlefields of the Civil War. Even their nicknames, Jayhawks and Tigers, described groups of men who shed blood across that border 150 years ago. It has been one of the bitterest of rivalries in sports, college or professional. It would have been a game for the history books.
And with Missouri’s conference switch next year, it would have been the last such game.
This game would have been talked about for generations. Forget Duke-North Carolina, Harvard-Yale, Michigan-Ohio State. This would have been Patton vs. Rommel, Spartans vs. Persians, Limbaugh vs. Carville. In short, a blood match.
But it was not to be. Call it fate, Karma, predestination, whatever. There will be no epic Tiger-Jayhawk battle at the pinnacle of the college basketball pyramid. There wasn’t the titanic struggle at the Big 12 Tournament either. In fact, all we have left is the last game they played. And it was a classic in its own right. Kansas overcame a 19-point deficit (or if you prefer, Missouri failed to protect a 19-point lead) to tie at the end of regulation. In overtime, the game went down to the last shot, a desperate prayer by Missouri less than a second after time had expired. Despite the outcome, it was still a great game, regardless of which colors you wore that night.
The Border War is now over. To paraphrase Chief Joseph, from where the sun now stands, they will fight no more forever.
As Kansas heads into the final four I sincerely wish them the best of luck. Ahead will be the toughest opponents they have faced all year, the biggest games they have ever played. While I can’t bring myself to actually root for the Jayhawks, even I can admit that they have truly earned the right to be there. I will watch those games, part of me hoping for Big 12 glory, the other part, the Mizzou part, hoping Kansas goes down in flames.
As exciting as this season has been for Missouri fans, we will nonetheless look back with an ache for what might have been.
The last and greatest battle of the Border War.