By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
LAWRENCE, Kan. - Those who control college football are currently debating a possible change in the postseason. One of their charges in any adjustments is to preserve the meaning of the regular season. And there are many pundits and professional talkers who bemoan the fact that the NCAA Tournament makes college basketball's regular season meaningless.
As evidence against that theory, Your Humble Correspondent asks the jury to consider No. 4 Kansas 87, No. 3 Missouri 86 in overtime in Allen Fieldhouse Saturday.
So, college basketball's regular season doesn't matter? Ask Missouri's Michael Dixon, who collapsed to his knees and then his back when the Tigers failed to launch a shot on their final possession. Ask Kansas' Thomas Robinson, who made the defensive play of the game and nearly ripped apart his jersey when the final buzzer sounded.
"We're never going to be part of something as big as this game was tonight," said Robinson, who finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds.
Ask the 16,300 who turned Allen Fieldhouse into a sound cauldron that left ears ringing. A jetliner at takeoff registers 120 decibels. As the second half started, the scoreboard showed a decibel reading of 118. It was louder as the Jayhawks clawed back from a 19-point second-half deficit. When Robinson's blocked shot sent the game to OT, the decibels reached 128; 130 is considered the threshhold for possible hearing loss.
"This is the best atmosphere I've ever seen here," said KU coach Bill Self, whose team authored the second-biggest comeback in school history. "I'm not the most emotional guy, but that's about as good as it gets. We could have won by 20 and it wouldn't have been as sweet as the way we won it today."
If it didn't matter, why did Missouri (25-4, 12-4) play lights-out for 16 minutes to build its big lead, making 16-of-25 of shots (6-of-11 from 3-point range)? If it didn't matter, how did Kansas find a way to shut down the Tigers' offense and grind its way back from the brink?
"Words can't even describe it, for real," said KU senior Tyshawn Taylor whose free throw with 8 seconds remaining provided the winning points. "This game mattered to us. They beat us last time. And it was for the Big 12 championship. That's what we play our season for. After every huddle, every game and every practice, we yell, 'Big 12 champions.'"
CBS analyst Clark Kellogg shook his head and kept repeating "unbelievable" in the moments after the game as the KU fans continued to rock their chalk.
"When I played at Ohio State, we twice went to the last day of the regular season and played to win the Big Ten title. We lost both times," he said. "I'll still regret that. Any time you see two teams playing for a regular-season championship in a major conference, you'll see this kind of passion."
Kansas clinched at least a share of its eighth consecutive Big 12 title with the victory over Missouri. The Jayhawks need to win at Oklahoma State Monday night or at home against Texas to clinch the outright title. With only one starter returning from last season's Elite Eight team, this might be the most remarkable of KU's dozen Big 12 crowns.
Kansas needed all of its Phoggy magic to beat a Missouri team that lost consecutive games for the first time this season. Former Jayhawk Scott Pollard used a wireless microphone to whip up the students after they entered the building. A student dressed as John Brown – a central figure in the real Border War that helped start this two-state rivalry – re-imagined a famous painting, holding a replica 2008 Orange Bowl trophy instead of a bible and a replica NCAA championship trophy instead of a musket.
Former Jayhawks Raef Lafrentz, Nick Collison, Kevin Pritchard and members of last year's team were introduced during media timeouts. At halftime, new KU football coach Charlie Weis introduced his coaching staff. He wrapped up with "Let's get it going in the second half and get a rally started."
A rally was necessary because Missouri had closed the first half on a 17-3 run fueled by the Kansas City duo of Marcus Denmon and Dixon. Denmon, who led the Tigers with 28 points, and Dixon combined for 12 points and an assist each during Mizzou's half-closing spurt.
"We didn't guard anybody," Self said.
That disappointing trend continued after intermission. Missouri scored on the first six possessions and took a 58-39 lead less than four minutes into the second half. When Kim English turned a near turnover into a layup with 10:51 to play, the Tigers had a 67-51 lead and had missed just nine of their last 25 shots.
Kansas missed 8 of 15 foul shots in the first half. Robinson had to sit the last four minutes with two fouls. Jeff Withey, who had just one shot in the first meeting in Columbia but had become a force in the next five games, rolled his ankle in the first three minutes and was ineffective.
In the second half and overtime, Kansas made 15 of 18 free throws. Robinson picked up just one foul after halftime. The foul trouble moved to the Missouri bench.
All season long, coach Frank Haith has done a marvelous job of juggling a seven-man rotation. Matt Pressey played just 15 minutes before fouling out. Brother Phil fouled out with eight seconds remaining with 12 assists and eight points but playing just 33 minutes hampered Missouri's offensive flow. Ricardo Ratliffe (22 points, 12 rebounds) finished with four fouls.
Robinson's 3-point play with 16 seconds remaining in regulation tied the game at 75. Phil Pressey used a screen at the top of the circle to drive for a left-handed layup. Robinson swatted it.
"Honestly, I think my eyes were closed," he said.
Actually, he had been guarding English in the left corner but appeared at the rim to block the shot and send the game into OT.
Taylor gave Kansas a quick lead with a 3-pointer. Denmon, who had been unstoppable at Mizzou Arena three weeks ago as the Tigers rallied to beat KU, made the second of two threes to give Missouri an 84-83 lead at 0:39. Taylor answered with a back cut and a dunk but Denmon countered with a base line floater and an 86-85 lead with 12 seconds remaining.
Kansas inbounded and Taylor raced up the court before Missouri's defense could set. He was fouled by Phil Pressey. In the loss at Missouri, he missed two key free throws late. Taylor struggled from the line in the Jayhawks' next game, a victory at Baylor, and said, "I suck at free throws."
With eight seconds remaining and a 105-year rivalry in the balance, his first attempt bounced around and in, the second swished. Without a timeout, Missouri got the ball into the front court and tried to run a hand off play to Denmon. Dixon, though, ran into Robinson, momentarily lost control, then fired a pass to Denmon at the top of the key. His shot was too late, even though it bounced twice and went in.
"We played our hearts out, Kansas played their hearts out," English said. "They won the game.
"We had the game in our hands, just like they apparently had the game in their hands in Columbia. We gave them a gift. This loss doesn't define our season. This isn't football. We're not out of the national championship running with a regular-season loss."
English, Haith, Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe sat at a table in the interview room facing two dozen mini-cams and about 100 journalists. If that didn't make the postgame tough enough, outside the doorway, across the hall from the Kansas locker room, they could hear KU fans rhythmically chanting "Let's go ... Jayhawks."
The attention for this game was amplified like the crowd noise by the fact that Missouri is headed to the Southeastern Conference. Missouri officials want to keep playing the series, Kansas is not interested. The teams have met 267 times as conference foes.
"It's not the same (as a nonconference game)," Self said. "Missouri has got to market their future. We're in their past."
These rivals might have one more game, though. Kansas and Missouri could meet in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship in Kansas City's Sprint Center. A rubber game on a neutral court, Ali-Frazier III.
"I wouldn't have a problem playing them again," Taylor said. "Sign me up."
To some close-minded observers, though, it would be just another college basketball game that doesn't matter.