OMAHA, Neb. >> The first thing that must be understood about Kansas and Wichita State is that their game on Sunday is about more than the players on the court and the coaches on the sideline.
Their tantalizing NCAA Tournament tilt amounts to class conflict.
It is a matchup of the blue-bloods and the blue-collared, college basketball royalty against the nouveau riche. The Jayhawks have national championship banners hanging from the rafters, the Shockers a chip perpetually hanging from their shoulders.
"The programs are not equal. It’s plain and simple," explained Darnell Valentine, who starred for the Jayhawks in the late 1970s and early ’80s. "The programs are just not the same."
That belief may be the biggest reason why the Jayhawks (27-8), the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, and the seventh-seeded Shockers (27-4) are meeting for the first time since 1993.
"They’ve been ducking Wichita State for years," countered Antoine Carr, who played his high school ball with Valentine before starring for Wichita State. "We’re all Kansas teams, but we’re all going to fight for that hill. Everybody wants to be the king of the hill."
Wichita State has tried periodically to schedule a series with Kansas over the years, but administrators there have always balked. Their argument is they have nothing to gain from playing anywhere in the state but Allen Fieldhouse, and they may be right. Why give up the game’s biggest homecourt advantage when there are no benefits in recruiting or exposure?
Besides, it wasn’t until coach Gregg Marshall took the Shockers to the Final Four two years ago that they became a household name again. For many years, they were an afterthought.
All those arguments sure irritate the Wichita State faithful, though, prompting many of them to label their counterparts to the north elitist at best, arrogant at worst.
"Obviously we’re not the BCS school, and I can see how KU wouldn’t want to play us," said Wichita State guard Ron Baker, who grew up idolizing the Jayhawks in tiny Scott City, Kansas.
Baker insists there is no animosity among coaches and players — although Marshall did once refer to Kansas as the "Chickenhawks." Instead, the rivalry that isn’t has been the domain of the fans, their proud campuses separated by just 162 miles of Sunflower State highway.
"It’s a funny dynamic," said the Shockers’ Fred VanVleet, "because the blood-hate rivalry is more for the people who grew up in the tradition. You take a guy like me from Illinois who doesn’t know anything about it, it’s not quite the same."
VanVleet pauses, and then adds with a grin: "I’ll hate them just as much when it’s time to suit up, though, because they’re in our way to the Sweet 16."
Indeed, the stakes could hardly be higher for two schools that have met just 14 times. Their only other meeting in the NCAA Tournament occurred in 1981, when Valentine and Carr squared off in New Orleans. The Shockers won that game on a last-second shot.
"I’m not going to lie," Kansas coach Bill Self said, "there are certain games that are big, and I think this is one of those games that is bigger."
When they finally do play, there will be a few key story lines to watch:
GUARD PLAY: VanVleet was dynamic in scoring 27 points against Indiana, outplaying star guard Yogi Farrell. Kansas counterpart Frank Mason III, who will likely match up with VanVleet, had 17 points and nine rebounds in his team’s win over New Mexico State.
"There are not too many true point guards," Self said. "Those are two of them."
REUNIONS: Several players from the teams have worked summer camps together, but Kansas forward Perry Ellis and Wichita State forward Evan Wessel are even closer: They grew up together.
"All the way back in biddy basketball," said Wessel, who will likely have the job of slowing down the Jayhawks’ leading scorer. "It’s a lot of fun to be able to play against him."
HEALTH CHECK: Ellis is still wearing a bulky brace on his right knee, which he sprained late in the regular season. He insists that he is close to 100 percent, even though he winced on more than one occasion during the Jayhawks’ victory over the Aggies.
"He was good today in practice," Self said. "He looked like the Perry of old."
COACHING MATCHUP: Self and Marshall have known each other for years, from the time they were at lesser-known schools — Tulsa for Self, Winthrop for Marshall. And while they have never exchanged Christmas cards, both coaches described their relationship as cordial.
"We stayed in touch," Marshall said. "Bill’s a great guy, a tremendous coach. One of the best in the country. Has a wonderful program. I have a lot of respect for him."