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Kansas-Missouri, the so-called "Border War," has been one of the truly special rivalries in college basketball. That's why the Tigers' 74-71 victory on Saturday night felt so bittersweet. Beginning next season, Missouri will compete in the SEC, meaning that Saturday's game was the last scheduled meeting to take place in Columbia. They will play again in Lawrence on Feb. 25, and possibly a third time in the Big 12 tournament. Beyond that, however, the future is uncertain.
It's not easy to see something this good come to an end. Throughout the game, ESPN's Dick Vitale repeatedly implored the schools to keep playing even after they're in different leagues. During the College Gameday pregame show, Jay Bilas went to so far as to assume the game will happen in the very near future. "They're gonna play," he said. "Whether it's next year or the year after, they're gonna play again."
I'm not so sure I share Bilas' optimism. Nor do I share Vitale's hope. I'm not just okay with seeing this rivalry come to an end. I actually want it to.
Why am I being such a killjoy? Because as much as I love a great rivalry, I loathe conference expansion even more. This has been the worst trend to hit college sports in a long, long time. Missouri's decision to go to the SEC was bad for college sports, bad for the Big 12 and certainly bad for Kansas. (I believe it will prove to be bad for Missouri, too, but only time will tell.) Coming on the heels of Texas A&M's decision to likewise bolt for the SEC, Missouri's defection almost put the Big 12 out of business. If the conference had dissolved, Kansas would have been in a tough spot. KU does not have an elite football program, so it would have been forced to beg leagues like the ACC and Big East to shoehorn the Jayhawks into their ranks. It would have been a sad moment for a proud school.
Missouri's basketball coach, Frank Haith, and its athletic director, Mike Alden, have said they want the series to continue. Their counterparts across the border, however, are not playing along. "It will not happen in the immediate future," Kansas coach Bill Self said after the game on Saturday night. "They chose to be someplace else. It's fine. It's their prerogative. If it is better for them, so be it, but if you choose to be somewhere else, you leave a situation behind that is not the same as what it was when you were in it."
That was a more diplomatic version of the answer that Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey gave last fall when asked if her team would continue to play Texas A&M: "If a man wants to divorce me and says our relationship has no value to him, and then he asks me if he can sleep with me, the answer is no," she said.
If Missouri is going to convince Kansas to change its mind, it's going to have to overcome more than just the hurt feelings of a jilted lover. The hard truth is, Missouri needs this game significantly more than Kansas does. The Jayhawks have won three national championships and have been to 13 Final Fours. Missouri has never even been to one. Kansas can recruit on a national scale, while Missouri has to focus on the Midwest. If injected with truth serum, I'll bet Haith would tell you the move to the SEC is making his job harder. So why would Self do something that will only make it easier?
Besides, it's not like Kansas has trouble scheduling nonconference games. The Jayhawks still have two years left in the Champions Classic that will rotate them with Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State. They are a perennially plum choice for all the major Thanksgiving and Christmas week tournaments. Their decision to participate in an intersectional matchup guarantees that it will be broadcast on ESPN or CBS. If Kansas agreed to play Missouri, it would be providing the Tigers with a national platform they currently lack. Hard to see the upside in that for the Jayhawks.
But think of the Kansas fans, Vitale urged. They want this game to continue, right? Actually, no. "I've heard from a lot of our coaches, our administrators, our larger donors and our fan base. The overwhelming majority ask me not to play Missouri at this time," KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger told me. "They feel that by leaving for another conference, they harmed our league -- our family, so to speak. They don't want to reward that."
Will this series resume someday, as Bilas predicts? I suppose so. After all, Auburn and Alabama quit playing each other in football back in 1907. It only took 41 years -- and a threat by the Alabama House of Representatives to cut funding -- for those teams to agree to play each other again. I doubt it will take four decades for Kansas and Missouri to resume their series, but I also doubt it will happen anytime soon. Nor should it. Missouri had every right to act in its self-interest, but now so does Kansas. Hey, it's just business, right?
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