KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Deep within the Sprint Center, just outside the Kansas locker room, Jayhawks coach Bill Self was holding court after beating North Carolina to advance in the NCAA tournament.
In a state that holds basketball dear, the question he was asked was almost inevitable: What do you think of Wichita State joining you in the round of 16?
“I’m happy for the Shockers. I’m excited for them,” Self replied, before adding with a quick smile: “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to play them.”
“That was a joke,” Self said, “because I knew that would be the next question.”
It’s one that Self has heard ever since arriving at Kansas a decade ago.
The Jayhawks play in-state rival Kansas State at least twice a year as part of the Big 12 grind, but the state’s two flagship schools have been reluctant to schedule its only other Division I institution on a regular basis.
That’s left Wichita State on an island in the middle of Kansas.
The reasons why are many and varied, and there’s a bill floating around in the legislature designed to compel Kansas and Kansas State to schedule the Shockers.
But as it stands, with the Jayhawks the No. 1 seed in the South Region and Wichita State the ninth seed in the West, only the national championship game would bring them together this season.
Or any time soon, for that matter.
“Our success or failure doesn’t have anything to do with Kansas or K-State. They won’t play us,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “That’s their business.”
In the case of Kansas, Marshall said, he’s offered to play home-and-home series and even a three-game series that would take a game to Wichita — there’s a sparkling new downtown arena, so it wouldn’t have to be played on campus — and Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, with the third game in Kansas City, where the Jayhawks would have a decidedly home-court advantage.
No such luck. Not even a sniff.
And don’t think for a second it’s not frustrating.
“We would like to play them. Ultimately, we keep going to Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, Final Fours, it behooves them to play us,” Marshall said this week. “I guess they want to avoid the potential embarrassment of losing to us.”
Consider that another shot fired across the bow.
Kansas State hasn’t played the Shockers since 2003, and you have to go back another 10 years to find the last time the Jayhawks played them.
That was when former coach Roy Williams was still on the sideline and the Jayhawks played their neighbors to the south — they’re separated by only 160 miles of interstate — in a home-and-home series six times in seven years.
It’s not that the series has been particularly interesting, of course. The Jayhawks won the last five meetings by an average of 32 points, and only twice in 14 games did Wichita State come out on top: The Shockers won in 1989, and also beat Kansas 66-65 in a memorable regional semifinal in the 1981 NCAA tournament in New Orleans.
But there are many folks in Kansas, particularly those wearing black and gold, who believe a series between the schools would be good for the state.
The standard response Kansas and Kansas State have given for not scheduling the Shockers over the past decade is that it simply wouldn’t do them much good.
While the Shockers have been a successful program, they haven’t always been at a level that would help Kansas and Kansas State with their strength of schedule. And such a game would hardly stoke national interest the way Ohio State-Kansas or Michigan-Kansas State might.
But these days, Wichita State has become one of the nation’s marquee mid-majors, racking up 109 wins over the past four seasons. The Shockers are playing in their second straight NCAA tournament, and preparing to face No. 13 seed La Salle for a spot in the regional finals for the first time since that year they beat the Jayhawks.
Suddenly, they’re an “it” team on the rise, and many of those reasons for not scheduling Wichita State have lost their credence.
“So what if we win every once in a while. They going to fire Bill Self? I don’t think so,” Marshall told The Associated Press earlier this year. “It’d be good for everybody, but it’s like moving a mountain, man. Like moving a mountain to get it done.”
Michael O’Donnell, a freshman state senator from Wichita, it trying to help move it.
He introduced a bill in the legislature that would have compelled Kansas and Kansas State to put Wichita State on their non-conference schedule each year starting with the 2014 season. The bill has not had a hearing and action on the measure isn’t expected this session.
“I don’t think it’s getting any traction,” O’Donnell conceded, “but I think it validates that Wichita State has a terrific basketball program.”
O’Donnell also said last weekend’s upset of No. 1 Gonzaga should put to rest any doubts about the caliber of basketball played by the Shockers, and drive home the fact that they can compete with anybody — including Kansas and Kansas State.
“I’m not saying we’re better than them,” Marshall said, “but I think we’ve proven that the value of a game playing us would not hurt them in recent history.”
Associated Press writer John Milburn in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.