NASHVILLE — Two weeks ago, Missouri players were watching film when coach Cuonzo Martin casually dropped a bombshell.
“We’re playing Kansas,” he told his team.
The Tigers weren’t sure if he was kidding.
“Coach Cuonzo’s kind of a man of few words,” freshman Michael Porter Jr. said Wednesday at SEC media day. “Afterwards , we all asked him, ‘What do you mean? Are you serious?’ And he told us, ‘Yeah,’ but he didn’t say anything after that. So we were all really excited once we found out it was for sure happening.”
One of the Midwest’s most storied basketball rivalries has spent more than half a decade on the shelf. Thankfully, the drought is set to end Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, where Missouri and Kansas will meet on the hardwood as inter-conference foes for the first time in 110 years.
It’s technically an exhibition game, but the renewal of Mizzou-KU is expected to rock the Sprint Center.
Demand for tickets was such that Missouri’s student allotment sold out in one minute, and all general admission options were gone by Tuesday afternoon.
Those without a seat won’t get to see much. Due to the last-minute decision to schedule the game, the contest will not be broadcast on television or streamed on the Internet. (Both schools will offer radio play-by-play.)
Dubbed the “Showdown for Relief,” the game’s proceeds will benefit hurricane-relief programs in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Missouri and Kansas last met in Feb. 2012, when a controversial non-call allowed the No. 4-ranked Jayhawks to complete a 19-point comeback and beat the No. 3 Tigers in overtime. Missouri went on to win the Big 12 tournament that year, but fell to No. 15-seeded Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA tournament while Kansas advanced to the championship game.
Later that year, Missouri left for the SEC, and Kansas coach Bill Self has resisted attempts at renewing the rivalry ever since.
In early 2016, he said the ball is “probably in our court” and implied that the rivalry would not be restarting anytime soon. This week, he indicated that the decision to allow an exhibition between the schools won’t have any bearing on the decision to eventually meet in a regular season game.
“I haven’t changed how I feel about that at all,” Self said, per a university news story. “My whole thinking when I called (Missouri coach) Cuonzo (Martin), it didn’t have anything to do with us wanting to play Mizzou. It had everything to do with, how can we send the most money to those victims?”
Missouri’s sudden resurrection undoubtedly helped spur the decision. Martin was hired to replace Kim Anderson, who went 27-68 over three seasons while battling sanctions and abnormal roster turnover. With Martin came former Father Tolton (Columbia, Mo.) High School star and future NBA lottery pick Michael Porter Jr., along with a small army of other prep stars including Porter’s 5-star younger brother Jontay, who reclassified as a senior so he could play with Michael this coming season.
The family atmosphere will be undeniable with the boys’ father, Michael Porter Sr., on Martin’s staff this season.
“I can’t think of a better situation,” Porter Jr. said.
He remembers watching Missouri-Kansas games when he was a kid in Columbia, specifically a 2011 contest at Mizzou Arena in which Marcus Denmon led a Tigers comeback to upset the Jayhawks.
“It’s gonna mean the world to me,” Porter said of the forthcoming exhibition game. “It’s not a scrimmage to me. It’s a game. All my family’s gonna be there. So it’s gonna be just crazy being on the floor with that team that I grew up watching.”
Missouri and Kansas first met on the hardwood in 1891 and played each other nearly every season until 2012-13.
Their football rivalry was not as storied, but still produced several memorable moments. In 2007, No. 3 Missouri upset No. 2 Kansas in a 36-28 thriller in Kansas City, leading to Mizzou football’s first No. 1 ranking in 47 years and inspiring the book Tigers vs. Jayhawks by Sports Illustrated editor Mark Godich.
While neither school has any active football or basketball players who have had the opportunity to play in the rivalry game, the importance of Missouri-Kansas is not lost on those who grew up around it.
“I don’t think anyone likes Kansas,” Fenton, Mo., native and Tigers linebacker Eric Beisel said this July. “It’s a shame that they’re afraid to play us, both basketball and football. It’s just personal, you know what I mean? It’s personal.”