No. 4 Jayhawks can wrap up Big 12 title vs Mizzou

DAVE SKRETTA AP Sports Writer Published:

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) -- Bill Self doesn't harbor much sentimentality about the end of the Kansas-Missouri rivalry.

He admits that the atmosphere in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday, when the fourth-ranked Jayhawks play the No. 3 Tigers for the final time in the regular season, will be more "juiced" than perhaps any other time since the venerable gym opened in 1955.

But he also knows that there is a lot more riding on the game than nostalgia.

"These kids will be fired up to play, without question, for a lot of reasons: A chance to get a ring -- at least a piece of it -- a chance to play Missouri and, more importantly, a chance to beat a team that beat us the first time we played," Self said. "That will be our focus."

Yes, one of the biggest games in the history of a rivalry that stretches back more than 100 years has an intriguing plotline after the Tigers lost to Kansas State on Tuesday night.

The Jayhawks (23-5, 13-2 Big 12) can earn at least a share of an unprecedented eighth straight Big 12 title with a win over the Tigers (25-3, 12-3), the only team with a chance of upstaging them.

It would be Kansas' 12th championship in the 16-year history of the league, which will undergo a dramatic change next season when the Tigers depart along with Texas A&M for the SEC. It would also be the school's 55th regular-season conference title, the most in Division I.

"We've got to be mature enough to understand it's a big game, and it's going to be a game of runs, and you can't be overly excited," said Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor, a senior who was been through plenty of big games during his time with the Jayhawks.

"We've been in enough games since the last time we played them to work on that," he said, "to try to compose ourselves and just play, and that's what we're going to do."

It'll be the fourth time that Kansas and Missouri tangle when both are ranked in the top 10, the last time coming just a couple weeks ago in Columbia, Mo.

That was a back-and-forth affair as the Jayhawks crept out to an eight-point lead in the closing minutes. Then Missouri guard Marcus Denmon took over down the stretch, hitting a pair of 3s and converting a three-point play as the Tigers scored the final 11 points.

The 74-71 defeat left a miserable taste in the mouths of those wearing crimson and blue.

"We're playing for a Big 12 title, and that's a big deal," said Kansas guard Travis Releford, who was held to five points in that first meeting. "The rivalry, the title and the fact they beat us at their place, there's a whole lot of factors to it."

Missouri had the advantage over the Jayhawks entering this week.

The two teams were tied atop the standings, but the Tigers had that win in Columbia in their back pocket. Then the Wildcats came to town on Tuesday night and had their way with Missouri, leading almost the entire way in a 78-68 victory that changed everything.

Once the Jayhawks held off a tough test by Texas A&M -- they blew most of a 21-point cushion before holding on for 66-58 victory -- they were in the catbird seat again.

For the eighth straight year.

"I don't know if this is the biggest game we've had," Self said. "If I remember right, Tyshawn's freshman year we played Texas at home, winner-take-all for the conference championship. That was the last game of the season, if I'm not mistaken. But regardless of what I say or how I look at it, people will look at this as a huge game.

"The most important thing, though, is to win the game, and put yourself in position to win the game," Self said. "That's our goal -- that's Missouri's goal."

Self may be downplaying the importance of the rivalry coming to a conclusion, preferring instead to focus on the laurels that come with another marquee victory at the Phog.

But once he stepped out of the locker room for practice Thursday afternoon and saw hundreds of students already lined up for prime seats -- many had arrived at the break of dawn on Sunday -- he couldn't deny the significance of one more win over Missouri.

"I mean, I love playing Missouri. I loved playing them when I was at Illinois. I've loved playing them here," he said. "But that's not anything I'm going to lay around, sit around, think about, 'Oh, I wish.' I just don't think that strongly about it."