When he was a freshman, senior guard Kim English made his first start at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kans., where his attempts to make an audible sound to former teammate Leo Lyons right next to him before tipoff were futile and where the hardwood named James Naismith Court quaked beneath his sneakers.
“After we beat (Kansas at home) my freshman year, we went there and it was super loud,” English said. “It’s definitely going to be revved up.”
When English and his four-year senior comrades enter one of basketball’s most hallowed houses Saturday, it will be for the fourth and final time in their careers. It will be their last try to win, already three-time victims along with the other 681 teams that have failed to best the Jayhawks since the arena opened in 1955.
Only 107 programs have ever been successful in the arena, where a warning hangs above five national championships banners: "PAY HEED, ALL WHO ENTER," it reads in blue, medieval-looking font.
It is this site where the Southeastern Conference-bound Tigers will travel to, across state borderlines, for perhaps the last time. The two sides might meet again for the Big 12 Conference Tournament in March. But, unless an agreement comes for the game to be continued, 1651 Naismith Drive will be the gravesite of a rivalry as old as the Civil War, when two terrorist organizations named the Missouri Bushwhackers and the Kansas Jayhawkers wreaked havoc on one another for their clashing viewpoints.
A smile stuck on English’s face as he recalled his freshman visit to one of his five most enjoyable places to play a basketball game (not “favorite” because he’s never won there).
He walked out of the tunnel alongside four-year teammate Marcus Denmon and remembered one man “about 110 years old in a Kansas shirt.” English recounted the man’s message with the cracked voice of a real geezer:
“'You from Missourah?'" English imitated. "'You gonna burn just like you burnt down our town!'”
English’s face became serious, speaking of the matchup that could determine the throne-holder of the conference.
“It’s definitely something I want to end my career doing, by winning at Allen Fieldhouse,” he said. “(We seniors) are just enjoying this. If I go on to have a long NBA career, it would never be anything like college ... We’re just enjoying every step of it.”
A win by the Tigers would grant them first place in the league, thanks to the tie-breaker lead over the Jayhawks, who lost at Mizzou Arena earlier this month.
Of course, the conference derby isn’t on the focused mind of coach Frank Haith.
“I want us worrying about competing,” he said. “The standings will take care of themselves as we continue to play and win games. That's what we concern ourselves with, going out and playing.”
Undersized Missouri, coming off a 78-68 loss to Kansas State on Wednesday, will again go toe-to-toe with a Kansas frontcourt featuring Naismith Award frontrunner Thomas Robinson and junior center Jeff Withey, the seven-footer who has averaged 16 points a game since being held scoreless in a 74-71 loss Feb. 4 in Columbia.
“We’ve got to be tougher, tougher at the rim,” senior forward Steve Moore said, following his team’s battering under the basket against the Wildcats, a key reason to the opposition's 53.8 percent field goal clip.
Moore grew up in Kansas City, a place where Missouri and Kansas loyalties are known to collide, the no-man’s-land of the borderlines.
Those loyalties will clash on the side of a road named after the inventor of the game, also the founder of Kansas’ program. In the stands, perhaps 16,000 strong will drown players’ talk and make the very floor tremor.
“Once the ball gets thrown up, it's just basketball like you guys have seen every day,” English said.