Missouri's football team ended its season with an embarrassing 7-55 nationally televised loss at Michigan State. The Tigers seemed to surrender to the Spartans early in the second quarter, making a mockery of the midseason optimism that surrounded Gary Pinkel's squad, which ended up 4-7.
But every KU and MU fan knows that no matter how bad the football season is, it is followed by the sporting gods' greatest gift to Kansans and Missourians: basketball. This season, the gods have lavished upon these two rivals everything that was lacking from football: incredible individual talent, unsurpassed fan interest and national recognition.
KU sports a lofty No. 4 ranking in the polls; MU, ranked No. 2 before its 83-65 loss to Iowa, is at No. 9. The teams haven't shared this kind of national acclaim in the same year since the 1989-90 season. It has fans of both schools acting like kids at Christmas.
"This Kansas team has the potential to be Roy Williams' best team -- even better than the 1997 team that went 34-2," says Michael Krueger, a lifelong KU diehard. Krueger is the 25-year-old offspring of KU grads who trucked him to his first game at Allen Fieldhouse at age three. "I've been a Kansas fan since the crib," he says. The fact that KU was upset by Ball State in its season opener has done little to squelch the runaway optimism of many Jayhawks fans. "That Ball State loss is what proved to me how good we're going to be," Krueger says. "With [Drew] Gooden and [Nick] Collison sitting out at the same time against Ball State, other players stepped up. In past years, this has been a problem."
After calling the KU win at Arizona earlier this month, veteran NBA play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan (a KU grad) told WHB 810 listeners that this team is Williams' best, adding that NBA scouts are hot for Gooden and Collison, but the pros really crave Kirk Hinrich, KU's steady junior point guard.
Meanwhile, no one in the nation is questioning the talent of the MU Tigers' backcourt. Kareem Rush, the lightly recruited junior guard out of Pembroke Hill, is in the top five of every preseason All-American team and considered by many to be the nation's best player. Rush's running mate, senior Clarence Gilbert, is one of the most devastating three-point shooters ever to grace a hardwood floor. Gilbert's missed shots are forgotten more quickly than Norm Stewart in Columbia.
Mike Kelly, the longtime play-by-play voice of MU, isn't yet fully on board the Tigers' bandwagon, though. "To me, how good MU ultimately can be rests on how quickly their big people can develop," he says.
But despite his caution, Kelly sees lots of potential in Quin Snyder's team. "This may be as good a team as the 1989-90 Missouri team that was ranked No. 1," Kelly admits. "Optimism is a great thing, but it should be tempered with realism. Missouri has one senior and only one junior playing. Everybody else on the court is a sophomore or freshman."
After a football season filled with woe, KU and Mizzou fans have never been happier that Dr. James Naismith hung a peach basket ten feet off the floor in 1895 and directed his students to "put the ball in the basket." March is a long way off, but fans this starved for a winner should be allowed to dream.