Yes, Missouri lost its way at home Tuesday night against the other school from Kansas, but that changes nothing about the importance of the Big 12 basketball Border Showdown at Kansas on Saturday that everybody in this part of the country has been pointing to for weeks as the game of the year.
The Jayhawks encountered a mild scare Wednesday night at Texas A&M but pulled away late to pull out an eight-point victory. The victory placed Kansas, the nation's fourth-ranked team (AP), in the driver's seat in the conference race to the regular-season championship.
A win is a win, but Kansas coach Bill Self wasn't all that excited with the way his team played after building a 10-point lead at the half. "If you would have told me coming in here we'd have won by eight, I'd have been ecstatic," Self said after the game. "But we were up by 21, and you saw what happened down the stretch."
That's something Kansas can't afford to happen against Missouri. Ironically, that's precisely what happened in the earlier game in Columbia, and we know how that turned out (a Missouri come-from-behind win).
A win Saturday over arc-hrival Missouri would assure the Jayhawks of no worse than a tie for their eighth consecutive conference crown.
But that's getting way ahead of ourselves, something the third-ranked Tigers may have been guilty of on Tuesday against Kansas State. Granted, it would have made for a better story line and perhaps bigger attention nationally if both the Jayhawks and Tigers had gone into their game this Saturday tied for the conference lead and both ranked in the country's top five. But the only thing that has changed, really, is the one-game advantage KU now holds at the top of the league standings.
Because of what happened in the mid-week games this week, the best Missouri can hope for in the regular season is a share of the league title. But everything else that was at stake previously is still out there. If you're Missouri, here's what remains at stake on Saturday night: a chance at a piece of the Big 12 crown, an opportunity to even up the season series with your neighboring-state archrival and get it done in front of 18,000 screaming Jayhawk fans at Allen Fieldhouse, one of the iconic venues in college basketball, in perhaps the final game between the two schools in MU's final Big 12 season. And, of course, state bragging rights.
The dynamics and game planning may have changed slightly, but don't expect any different a game between these two bitter, longtime conference rivals than would have occurred otherwise. Kansas will be favored in the game, but the Tigers will come out loaded for bear - perhaps even more so now after suffering a disappointing late-season home loss leading up to the much-ballyhooed showdown with mighty Kansas - and if MU's quartet of dead-eye perimeter shooters is on, the size advantage that the Jayhawks hold over the Tigers will quickly be neutralized.
Statistically, the long awaited rematch in this series couldn't get much closer. A couple of areas that jump out, however, are field goal percentage and rebounding. As accurate as Missouri has been as a team from the field all season, in conference play, Kansas has shot even better (both at right around 48 percent). What's troublesome here, if you are an MU fan, is that the Tigers are the worst in the conference in holding down their opponents' field-goal percentage (47 percent vs. 38 percent for KU's opponents).
The other area that could come into play in deciding the regular-season rematch is rebounding. The Jayhawks are shooting a high-enough percentage that they don't need many second attempts, but if KU is able to control the offensive glass against the shorter, quicker quintet of Tigers on the floor, it will make it considerably more difficult for Missouri to come out of this game with a win.
Both teams are adept at creating points off of turnovers. It seems that every time Kansas and Missouri play in basketball, the defensive pressure on both ends forces the other team into a higher number of forced turnovers than is normal. This will be another interesting area to watch on Saturday (easy points yielded off of turnovers).
And we shouldn't forget that the Missouri loss to Kansas State on Tuesday was only the Tigers' third defeat all season against 25 wins. All three of the Tigers' losses came in Big 12 play (Kansas State twice and at Oklahoma State). Missouri is actually two games better than Kansas in the loss column as a result of going undefeated in nonconference games (13-0), while the Jayhawks were 10-3 entering league play in January.
I'm going to hold off predicting the outcome of this game until Friday, when I will come out with my regular weekly predictions of the Big 12 weekend games. For now, let me restate the obvious: This game would be big, regardless of the circumstances. It is what it is.