LAWRENCE — Tonight, down the road in Manhattan, Aggieville will be ready to rock. City and campus police can only hope that, if Kansas State tops Kansas in a battle of top-five teams at Allen Fieldhouse, the celebration will be a tad more melancholy than back in 1958, the last time a game played on Kansas soil between these rivals meant this much.
On that February night when No. 3 K-State visited No. 2 KU and Wilt Chamberlain, the Wildcats won in double overtime, 79-75, and would go on to the Final Four. The Jayhawks would stay home in March because K-State won the Big Seven title and only the conference champion could advance to the 24-team NCAA Tournament. When the Wildcats took down Wilt behind 32 points from Bob Boozer, the students tried to take down Aggieville.
"It was nuts," said Boozer, 72, who now lives in Omaha. "Hysteria. Mass hysteria. They chopped down telephone polls in Aggieville when we beat KU and had a big bonfire in the middle of the street. It was crazy."
Don Matuszak, a K-State point guard on the '58 team, remembers returning to campus and being met by a crowd of students at Ahearn Field House. He was shocked to see the young women, who were apparently willing to break the rules to show their appreciation.
"Back then," Matuszak said, "there was a curfew for the women."
As big as the '58 game was, could it really have been bigger than tonight's Sunflower Showdown between No. 2 KU and No. 5 K-State? Maybe it's because Monte Johnson was on the losing end of the last top-five tussle in Lawrence, but he doesn't think that a game played 52 years ago could ever feel as big as they feel today.
"I know when you resurrect the '58 game, there are things that are comparable," said Johnson, 73, who lives in Lawrence and was KU athletic director from 1982-87. "But I'm not sure there's anything that beats the kind of enthusiasm and excitement that surrounds college basketball in general now. And because both KU and KSU are ranked so high, this game takes on a totally different meaning."
That it would take 52 years for KU and K-State to play again when both are in the top five would have shocked anyone who played in the former era. Aside from the 1988 clash in the Elite Eight, won by Kansas on the way to the national championship, most of the games between the Wildcats and Jayhawks have amounted to battles for state bragging rights.
And how's this for a glaring indictment of the national importance of Kansas-Kansas State games? The Jayhawks have played 17 of their 29 games this season on national TV, and the game against the Wildcats at Allen was not grabbed by any of the ESPN networks at the beginning of the season. Tonight's game will be a regional broadcast on the Big 12 Network.
Well, who needs the national spotlight anyway? There's enough drama going into this one that maybe only those with ties to the region could appreciate it.
Kansas (27-2, 13-1 Big 12) can win the outright Big 12 regular season title with a win, while Kansas State (24-4, 11-3) can go into the weekend with a chance to share the title if victorious. KU can take a big step toward becoming the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, while K-State can become a legitimate candidate for a No. 1 seed and call into question the Jayhawks' validity as a top seed.
Kansas can send Sherron Collins out with Senior Night memories that will stick with him the rest of his life, while K-State can make Collins give his speech in front of a disappointed and frustrated crowd. KU can extend the nation's longest home court winning streak to 59 games and give next year's team a chance to break the school record of 62 in a row, K-State can win its seventh road game in a row.
KU coach Bill Self has said that he thinks K-State coach Frank Martin should be the Big 12 coach of the year and one of the top two candidates for national coach of the year, along with Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. Self's Jayhawks may have pulled out an 81-79 overtime win in Manhattan on Jan. 30, but Self could easily forecast the magnitude of tonight's game.
"I told our staff, 'They will not lose again. When we play them, they'll have three losses (in league),' and that's what has played out," Self said. "I didn't see any team on their schedule that they wouldn't beat. It's probably two better teams today than it was then in large part because we're a little more battle-tested."
Of course, no matter what happens, it will not be the end of the world for either team like in '58. The teams could very well meet again in Kansas City in the Big 12 Tournament final and in the NCAA Tournament.
If the '58 Wildcats wanted to seize their dreams, they had to go into Lawrence and beat Wilt and the Jayhawks. The former K-State players want the current guys to know that feeling.
"It's great to see them ranked," Matuszak said, "but it'd be even better if they could beat KU. That's the ultimate."