By R.B. FALLSTROM, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Any time Kansas comes to town, it's a big deal for Missouri. It seems a bit bigger this time around.
The border rivalry that dates to the Teddy Roosevelt administration is about to be shut down indefinitely as Missouri leaves for the Southeastern Conference. Oh, and both schools are in the top 10, too.
The fourth-ranked Tigers (20-2, 7-2 Big 12) have been a season-long surprise under first-year coach Frank Haith, who arrived from Miami as a relative unknown with a shaky track record. Now he's a contender for national coach of the year, getting the maximum from a seven-man rotation heavy on senior experience.
Once again, they're chasing eighth-ranked Kansas (18-4, 8-1), seeking its eighth straight conference championship and with a one-game lead in the Big 12 over Missouri and Baylor. Thomas Robinson is a candidate for national player of the year, and the only player in the conference averaging a double-double every night.
Missouri students began camping out Wednesday night, eager for Saturday morning's ESPN GameDay show ahead of that night's game. For the Jayhawks' final visit to Columbia for a Big 12 game, Robinson figures the taunting will be taken to a new level.
"I'm not letting anybody in that gym, stadium, state, stop me," Robinson said. "So they can say what they want. You're not listening to the crowd. Otherwise, you wouldn't be no good."
Haith hopes there's a way to keep the series going beyond the return matchup Feb. 25 in Lawrence, Kan., which will be Game 267 dating to 1906-07, when the Jayhawks were coached by basketball inventor James Naismith but lost on consecutive days at Missouri. Haith noted optimistically that Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State, three series closer to his old job at Miami, are alive and well despite being in different conferences.
"Absolutely. I think it's a great rivalry. I'm excited about being a part of this thing, this weekend," Haith said. "Hopefully in time, we can rekindle that and we can still play."
Bad blood off the court is responsible for halting this one.
When Missouri joins the SEC in July it'll be the first time the schools haven't been in the same conference. The move could endanger the Big 12 television package if West Virginia isn't able to extricate itself from the Big East in time for next season, leaving the conference with just nine teams.
Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas recently labeled Missouri's decision "selfish" and "disruptive," adding that the SEC had offered to delay the Tigers' move until 2013. And don't forget the Kansas university relations Twitter account, which had this reaction to the move in November: "Missouri forfeits a century-old rivalry. We win."
So, expect emotions to be high for the Columbia finale.
Kansas coach Bill Self said he's not mad, just disappointed.
"Kids on both sides are prideful, fans are prideful," Self said. "There's talk on both sides of it and that translates down to players as well."
Missouri players have been reminded all week to ignore hoopla and concentrate on the game. Leading scorer Marcus Denmon, sixth man Michael Dixon and reserve forward Steve Moore, all from Kansas City, need no more incentive.
"All that stuff you hear is going on, you try to block it out because all that stuff, you can't control," Moore said.
Guard Kim English, one of the more outspoken Missouri players, was purposefully respectful. He made meticulous note of Kansas' rich tradition, although he added, "But we're living in the here and now."
"Respect their players, really look up to them, respect their coach," he said, "that's about it."
The same goes for Kansas, although players are ready to ramp it up in tribute to the spirit of a beloved series on the verge of cancellation.
"This rivalry goes way back before we even know, so we kind of take on that role of not really liking those guys," guard Tyshawn Taylor. "We're going to embrace the crowd, we're going to embrace the fans, we're going to go out and do what we do. That's why we came to Kansas, to play games like this."
The rivalry actually has been rather lopsided, with Kansas holding a decisive 171-94 advantage and carrying a five-game winning streak into Saturday's matchup.
The last time Missouri had a higher ranking for a matchup was 2009, when it was 11th, four spots ahead of the Jayhawks, and lost by 25 points in Lawrence, Kan.
It's been a bigger game for Missouri in recent years because of Kansas' stature, and the Tigers' lack of it.
"We cannot win any games except for Kansas and we had a great season," Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe said, echoing remarks from seasons past.
Kansas had a 10-game winning streak snapped at Iowa State last week, but is coming off a 22-point victory over Oklahoma on Wednesday. That's not much time to prepare for Missouri's four-guard offense, with dazzling sophomore Phil Pressey distributing to 3-point threats Denmon, English and older brother Matt Pressey.
The lone inside man is a major beneficiary, too. Ratliffe is shooting 75 percent, threatening the single-season NCAA field goal percentage record of 74.6 percent by Oregon State's Steve Johnson in 1981. He will have his hands full with Robinson.
"I don't see it as a matchup problem because I think I have the ability to at least contain them, and stay in front of them," Robinson said. "And I look at it like they have to check me. It works both ways."
AP Sports Writer David Skretta and AP freelance writer Jake Kreinberg contributed to this report.