By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This is different, this Kansas team that comes into West Virginia University’s Coliseum at 9 p.m. for a Big Monday meeting with the Mountaineers.
It isn’t just that it is basketball royalty, for WVU has had a parade of that coming into its building over the years, especially the Big East years when the likes of Georgetown and Syracuse and Louisville were regular visitors.
North Carolina also came to Morgantown way back in 1952, and Kentucky has been in town twice, although not since 1970.
Now it is Kansas coming to town for the first time in what is being deemed a “Stripe the House” promotion and, considering the fact that the Mountaineers have been struggling through a 9-10 season, including four losses in the past five games, anything to take one’s mind off the game matchup becomes a relief.
The Jayhawks, you see, are their usual selves. They come to town ranked No. 2 in the nation, riding a 17-game winning streak, bringing with them a busload of top-line players and a history that makes this game something that may be different from any other matchup ever to be played in this college town.
To talk about Kansas really means you begin at the beginning of the sport of basketball itself, for once upon a time there was a coach at Kansas by the name of Dr. James Naismith, who just happens to be credited with being the inventor of basketball.
A year ago sports writer Jason Jenks in Topeka did an interesting article looking back upon the history of the sport at Kansas and at Naismith, who had come up with the idea for the sport while in Springfield, Mass., writing the rules in less than an hour, using 427 words.
The first game was played with those famous peach baskets on Dec. 21, 1891.
Six years later he moved to Kansas as its first coach and, Jenks noted, its only losing coach, for Naismith did not quite comprehend where his game would go or how the state of Kansas and the university there would adopt it.
The first game came in the winter of 1899, significant in a couple of ways, for Naismith’s team lost, 16-5, that night to a Kansas City YMCA team that Jenks reports featured “a rather rough player by the name of Jesse James.”
And yes, it was that Jesse James.
Naismith’s view of a basketball coach differs from, say, Bob Huggins, who will be on the West Virginia sideline tonight, or Bill Self, who will be on the Kansas bench, in that he saw the game as less competitive and more a matter of a way to stay in shape in the winter.
He told his top pupil, Forrest “Phog” Allen, that “you don’t coach this game, Forrest, you play it.”
Allen did not take that advice and became one of a long line of great Kansas coaches, many enshrined in the Hall of the Fame. The list includes Naismith and Allen along with Ted Owen, Dick Harp, Larry Brown, Roy Williams and Bill Self.
In fact, Kansas has had but eight coaches since 1899, save for a couple of men who filled in for less than half a year.
Of them, by the way, the man with the best record is the man who brings his team into the Coliseum tonight, Self, whose winning percentage is pushing .850.
Coaches are as good as their players, in most instances, and Kansas has had players.
Oh, did they have players.
WVU, for example, has had just three players who are looked upon as basketball gods in a sense — Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley and Rod Thorn.
There have been, of course, many others who reached All-America status and had great accomplishments, but there has been a Hall of Fame of Kansas players over the years who not only were great college stars but went on to star in the NBA.
Starting with the greatest and most famous, Wilt Chamberlain, the only man to score 100 points in an NBA game, there were 21 consensus All-Americans at the school, winning the honor 28 times.
This includes Clyde Lovellette, Paul Pierce, Danny Manning, Drew Gooden, Raef LaFrentz and Nick Collison.
Kansas has this special place in the world of college basketball not only for its coaches, for its players and for its success, but also because it has taken part in some of the most notable games in the sport’s history.
None was more well known than the 1957 NCAA championship game in which North Carolina defeated Chamberlain and Kansas in triple overtime, 54-53, in a game considered by many as the greatest college basketball game ever played.
That game was played in Kansas City before a partisan Kansas crowd with Frank McGuire’s Lennie Rosenbluth becoming the star of a comeback game that gave the Tar Heels a perfect 32-0 season and their first national title.
If that was the greatest game, the second greatest was also an NCAA Tournament loss, this in the 1966 Midwest Regional Finals when the Jayhawks lost 81-80 in double overtime to Texas Western, a game that KU had seemed to win on Jo Jo White’s shot at the buzzer.
It was ruled, however, that White had stepped on the sideline and the basket was disallowed, something Kansas protests to this day using a photo that shows White’s heel over the line, but raised off the floor, as “evidence.”
Texas Western went on to the finals and beat Kentucky and Rupp’s Runts for the title in a game immortalized in the movie “Glory Road.”
Now the program is in Self’s hands. He had become a successful coach at Illinois back in 2003 when he was selected to replace Roy Williams, who left for North Carolina in a situation not totally unlike Rich Rodriguez’s exit from West Virginia for Michigan.
Self’s situation was a difficult one, just as Bill Stewart’s was at WVU, for he was facing a mad fan base and one that demanded he win, win a lot and do it immediately, Williams having taken four teams to the Final Fours.
He understood it and actually joked about it when named to the position. Jenks reported it this way in his story:
“And so, at his introductory press conference, at a time when Kansas fans felt most uneasy, Self was handed a chair by Chancellor Robert Hemenway. It was a simple gesture, a metaphor of the seat occupied by those before him. He touched it, looked at the assembled people in front of him, and, in a perfect Bill Self moment, said, ‘It feels hot.’”
Indeed, he was taking the hot seat, but he has made the most of it and brings another contender for a national championship into Morgantown.
His team is averaging 16 points a game more than it is giving up and possesses the best field-goal percentage in the Big 12 at .480 compared to WVU’s worst at .395.
The Jayhawks feature Ben McLemore, the second-leading scorer in the conference at 16.2 points a game and the leader in field-goal percentage at .510 and 3-point percentage at .456, and Jeff Withey, the fourth-leading rebounder at 8.4, while Elijah Johnson runs the show from his guard spot.
And if WVU is thinking of fouling Kansas as a strategy ... well, forget it. McLemore leads the Big 12 in free-throw percentage at .880, and Travis Releford is right behind him at .879.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.