When kids grow up in the state of Kansas, they dream of playing basketball for KU in Allen Fieldhouse.
If those dreams don’t come true, the next best thing is to suit up for the other team, upset the Jayhawks and jump on the mid-court logo in front of 16,300 silent fans.
With the way this college basketball season is going, the alternative fantasy looks more like a possibility for Washburn everyday.
In the past week, Gardner-Webb won by 16 points at No. 22 Kentucky, Mercer beat No. 18 USC by 17 and most shockingly, Division II Grand Valley State knocked off No. 8 Michigan State in double overtime.
The Bods lost by 30 at UNLV last Tuesday but hope their disappointing performance in Vegas stays there so they can get in on the nationwide upset action.
“We should be ready for the big-time schools even though we struggled a little bit with our first game in Vegas,” said junior guard Angel Santiago. “We’re working hard for the game against KU so we can finish off with good games against them and UMKC as well.”
When the Bods talk about making the most of their trips to big-time college arenas they do not just mean they want to enjoy the environment. They are expecting to be in close games throughout, if not pull off an upset or two.
“We’re ready,” said sophomore guard Mario Scott. “We’ll be ready if we’re not already. By game time, we’ll be straight. We fixed a few things in practice since the game down in UNLV.”
The practices Washburn has endured since the loss to UNLV have given the team reason to believe they are fully prepared to play close games Nov. 13 against the Kangaroos and Nov. 15 against the Jayhawks.
“There have been some real intense practices,” said Scott. “Mainly we’ve been working on taking care of the ball and running our offense. We need to push the ball so they can’t get their defense set, and make sure we get the ball to the right people at the right time.”
Last season, the Bods lost by 30 at KU, but this year’s game features a different cast of contributors for both teams. Frank Phifer, who led all scorers with 22 points in the last meeting, and Dylan Channel, who added 10, are no longer with the team. Junior forward Paul Byers is one of the few Washburn players returning for this year’s trip to Lawrence, and he still looks forward to the game despite the outcomes of previous matchups.
“It’s a dream come true for any kid who grows up in Kansas,” said Byers. “It’s always fun to play in Allen Fieldhouse with all the fans that are there.”
No. 4 Kansas will also play without its two top contributors from a year ago. Brandon Rush will miss the game because of an injury, while Julian Wright gets paid to sit on the bench for the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets. However, one Washburn player has his sights set on a Jayhawk who will be playing in Thursday’s game.
“My best friend is Sherron Collins,” said Santiago. “I saw him play in a few games last year. It’s a good environment there, really good.”
Santiago, like Collins, is from Chicago, and fellow backcourt teammate Scott comes from Grand Rapids, Mich. The two are confident about how they will play in the Division I arenas but still recognize the challenge Washburn faces when entering Allen Fieldhouse.
“This is my first time playing there,” said Scott. “I’ve heard a lot of good things. I’m looking forward to redeeming ourselves.”
The redemption Scott and Santiago seek goes beyond the 30-point losses to UNLV and KU. Both players look at the regular season game against Kansas as a chance to prove they can play at that level.
“It will be good to get that experience by playing a major Division I team,” said Scott. “I would love to play Division I, but for whatever reason, I am where I am. These games are a chance to get experience but also show that we belong at that level.”