Already, the campers had pitched their tents.
Missouri students had already formed a Technicolor line of canvas confines late Thursday afternoon on the pavilion outside Mizzou Arena, where, in the basement halls, crews bustled in preparation for the production of ESPN's "College GameDay." Amid it all, coach Frank Haith and the No. 4 Missouri Tigers were on the main court, practicing for potentially the final installment of the hardwood Border Showdown set in Columbia against No. 8 Kansas.
When the Tigers (20-2, 7-2 Big 12 Conference) and Jayhawks (18-4, 8-1 Big 12) meet Saturday night, Haith will get his first courtside view of the age-old rivalry clash in his debut year as the program’s head man.
This year might also bring his last. The survival of the rivalry still hangs in the balance since MU’s decision to leave the Big 12 neighborhood and join the Southeastern Conference.
With the cast of "College GameDay" at Mizzou Arena for the weekend's most-heralded match on the national stage, the whole nation has a chance to experience it.
“It’s going to be a great day on Saturday," Haith said. "I’m excited about our fans being a part of 'GameDay.' I haven’t been a part of 'GameDay' myself, so I’m excited about that, too.”
Haith, a man of strict regimen who constantly preaches the philosophy of “the next game,” said the week has not had quite the same structure.
“This hasn’t been a normal week,” he said. “There’s been a lot of things going on. We’ve talked about not getting distracted in terms of us staying true to who we are and what we’ve done all year..”
A systematized style of play has gotten Missouri to a prime-time tussle with the top standing of the Big 12 on the line. In the way of the Tigers’ continued chase of program history stands their nemesis, Kansas, led by player of the year headliner Thomas Robinson, whom Haith likens to “a warrior.”
Robinson’s 6-foot-10-inch, 237-pound frame will appear mammoth compared to that of senior guard Kim English, whose year-long transition to the forward position will be under full display against the country’s third-best rebounder averaging a double-double.
“Preparation is huge,” English said after practice, wearing a sweat-drenched grey sleeveless shirt with black and gold letters spelling "WHATEVER IT TAKES" on his chest. “I won’t fail to prepare.”
English said the outside anticipation had the feel of a football week on campus. But from inside the program, he said it was just another preparation week.
He sounds like he's taken his coach's words to heart: it's a big game, but only because it's the next game.
“I don't want to sound like (I’m saying) it’s just another game,” Haith said of the rivalry bout. “I mean, I know it’s not just another game… It’s a big game for top teams in the country and you have a chance on the national spotlight to represent.”
To MU freshman Nate Smith, however, the importance of the game was enough to bring him to living with a couple friends outside the event doors on Thursday. Their tents were up by 1:30 p.m.
The last time Missouri beat Kansas was in 2009, and Smith was watching the game at his grandmother’s house when Zaire Taylor shot-faked, dribbled right and shot with two seconds on the clock to lift his team 62-60.
“It was one of the best moments ever,” Smith said. “It didn’t matter what the atmosphere was. We beat Kansas.” And here he was, waiting for it to happen again.