Originally published on Dec. 19, 2004
TULSA - Tulsa and Wichita State played a basketball game for the 119th time Saturday night. The Shockers won 71-66, cutting Tulsa's lead in the series to 60-59.
I don't care what conference Tulsa plays in, this game means something. From the great players who came before to the fans who get a few more bees in their bonnets every time these two play.
A few hundred Shocker fans made the drive south for the game and were treated to one that would make Nolan Richardson and Gene Smithson proud.
WSU built a 17-point lead in the second half. The Golden Hurricane rallied to cut it to two. And the Shockers had just enough to improve to 6-0, four of those victories coming on the road.
Road, home, it doesn't matter anymore for Wichita State, which is staring at a potential 10-0 start with its next four games at Koch Arena.
Saturday's game was a big test.
Obviously, Tulsa is not the same kind of team that won 243 games during a 10-season span from 1993-94 through 2002-03. The Golden Hurricane splattered to earth with a 9-20 record last season and is 2-4 this season.
But Tulsa has more than its share of big, chiseled players. And some of them do a good job of helping the city's tattoo parlors thrive.
"Tonight, this was physical,'' WSU center Paul Miller said. "Coach (Mark Turgeon) told us it was going to be a really physical game and that we had to be tougher than they were.''
Whether the Shockers were tougher is debatable. Whether they had more talented basketball players isn't.
Even in the worst of times, when Tulsa went on a 10-0 run to cut WSU's lead to 64-62 with 2:33 remaining, there was no cause for panic.
Miller scored the Shockers' first points in nearly four minutes to give WSU a four-point cushion, and the storm had been weathered.
It shouldn't have been this tough.
Wichita State's interior defense was often nonexistent and allowed Tulsa's 6-foot-8 Anthony Price to do significant damage.
Turgeon blamed himself, and rightly so. Tulsa doesn't shoot well from the perimeter, but the Shockers never double-teamed Price.
"But instead I'm sitting over there like a dummy,'' Turgeon said. "I did a bad job tonight, and it allowed Price to do what he was doing. If we double-team him with about eight minutes to play, maybe this game isn't as close.''
But don't we want Tulsa-Wichita State basketball games to be close? Isn't close what this series is all about?
It's a shame that just when the Golden Hurricane's basketball program started to skyrocket under Tubby Smith in the early 1990s, the Shockers started going through some of their most difficult times.
Now Wichita State is rolling, but Tulsa has slipped. It would help if both teams were playing at a high level simultaneously.
Really, the WSU-TU rivalry hasn't boiled over since the 1986-87 season, when the Shockers beat Tulsa on its home court in overtime to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Turgeon said he spent all week trying to convince his players of the importance of the Tulsa game. He even called it "Tulsa week.''
But it's a difficult sell. Tulsa left the Missouri Valley Conference after the 1995-96 season. And let's face it, nonleague games in December just don't have the same consequence as a February conference game with championships on the line, which is the way it used to be for these two schools.
"It's obvious things have changed,'' Turgeon said. "I tried hard to tell them, but they don't know. Heck, I don't know what this rivalry was because I never played in it. But I know what it means to our fans.
"I kept talking to our kids, but it's not the same to them, unfortunately. But I like playing them.''
It's not the same for Tulsa, either. There were around 2,000 empty seats at the Reynolds Center. Can you imagine? Wichita State and Tulsa playing in front of 2,000 empty seats?
"People have been telling me about this rivalry for the four years I've been at Wichita State,'' Shocker forward Rob Kampman said. "Maybe it's not as big for me, but it is for everybody else, for our fans. And I'm starting to understand that.''
Tulsa, now a member of the Western Athletic Conference, will move to Conference USA next season. Wichita State is just another game on the schedule .
So we have to rely on our memories of this once-great college basketball rivalry.
Richardson and his polka-dot shirts. Smithson and his curly hair.
Bingo Bobby Smith, Paul Pressey, Steve Harris, Tracy Moore.
Dave Stallworth, Antoine Carr, Xavier McDaniel, Sasha Radunovich.
It's just not the same.
In many ways, it's just another game. Except to the old codgers who remember. They know better.