Now This Is a Rivalry!

I couldn't help but say, over and over again: "Wow, what a game!"

Saturday night's nationally-televised prime time deep-dish dilly between the Kansas Jayhawks and upstart Kansas State Wildcats lived up to the hype and then some. KU came out on top, 81-79, pushing KU (20-1 overall, 6-0 in the Big 12) back into a #1 national ranking and ruining ESPN's Digger Phelps' night.

Question for Digger: Seriously, did Ted Owens run the old pick and roll your wife back in the day? Why the overt hate for all things Kansas?

I haven't enjoyed a Sunflower Showdown that much in years. This was two heavyweights going toe-to-toe. It wasn't a particularly well-played game, although both teams were really good defensively for long stretches.

Many think Frank Martin has earned his stripes this season, shaking the knock that he can't coach. I'll give him credit for assembling a terrific group of athletes, and it's tough to argue with his record (17-4, 4-3). The Wildcats made some plays in crunch time, in particular Rodney McGruder's three-point play with 34 seconds left in regulation to tie the game. And Jacob Pullen? Stud. He'd play on any team in the country.

But they also did some tremendously boneheaded things. The one I can't get over is not fouling out Cole Aldrich. The Jayhawk big man played nearly 11 minutes of the game (5:51 of regulation and five minutes of overtime) with four fouls. Even I know that when a big man gets his fourth foul, you go straight at him. Well, apparently, Jamar Samuels and Wally Judge were granted the superpower of invisibility down the stretch because their teammates didn't see them. On the rare occasion anyone got the ball in the paint, Aldrich simply made sure his feet were set and his arms were straight up.

Exhibit B: how does Kansas State allow Sherron Collins to drive to the basket for the shot that put the Jayhawks up, 79-76, with nine seconds left in OT? Look, when Kansas came out of a timeout with :16 on the clock and nursing a one-point lead, everyone from me to Weird Robert to the drunk in the men's room at Rusty's Last Chance knew who was going to get the ball for Kansas. Tackle him at the elbow. Knock him down before he ever gets the ball. Whatever you do, make sure he doesn't get that shot off. But they still didn't stop him. Or maybe they just couldn't.

Things like fouling out the opponent's big man when he picks up number four with 7 ½ left and making damn sure the other team's best player – maybe the country's best player – doesn't get off the shot are things a smart, well-coached team does. I'm not sayin'; I'm just sayin'.

Give Kansas State fans credit, though: they brought it like they thought like they though it was a women's game. The beards and the unearned "Octagon of Doom" moniker thing are weak, but Kansas State basketball is trying to redefine itself. It's looking for new traditions and superstitions. The last time the Bram really rocked, Danny Manning was in uniform, not in a suit. KU's Milt Newton, current Washington Wizards VP of Player Personnel, was trying to shut down K-State's Mitch Richmond, six-time NBA all-star and retiree since 2002. The bottom line is, when the Bram is rockin', it's nearly as tough an environment as Allen Field House. Kudos to the Wildcat faithful.

It was a bit of a frustrating night for Kansas fan. Aldrich and Marcus Morris seemed incapable of making a layup for most of the game, despite combining for 31 points (and 21 boards). Had they made their bunnies, they combine for 45 points and KU walks out with a 12-point win in regulation.

Once again, the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were played by Tyshawn Taylor. At the 1:40 mark, he made two clutch free throws to put KU ahead, 69-66. Just 55 seconds later, he stole the ball from Denis Clemente, sealing a KU win. Or not. Seconds later, he made a lackadaisical pass that was picked by Rodney McGruder and resulted in the three-point play that sent the game into overtime. To make it even more maddening, Taylor turned around and scored four points in the overtime, including a driving jumper-and-one to stake the 'Hawks to a lead, 73-71.

Don't get sucked into the struggles. This is the way conference games between two good teams are supposed to be, folks. They're not all supposed to be 24-point wins. This is especially true when it's a rivalry game.

Last night's game was an example of why we love college basketball. It was a contest between two programs loaded with history and success played out in a big-time environment on national TV. And the respect between the two teams – as groups and as individuals – was hip-deep.

In the baseball chick movie, "A League of Their Own," has-been slugger-turned-manager Jimmy Dugan manager tells one of his players, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great."

The Jayhawks won a conference grinder on the road in a brutally hostile environment. They remain perfect, 6-0, in a conference that's busy beating the crap out of each other. Last night's win makes them 20-1 on the season. That's 21 consecutive 20-win seasons for Kansas.

No, it wasn't easy, but that's okay. That's what makes it great.

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