ST. LOUIS – Dylan Donner was in the front row at Scottrade Center for NCAA tournament open practices Thursday. He was careful not to get the dipping sauce from his chicken strips on his Wichita State Shockers jacket.
Donner is here with his father, Dallas. They drove in from Wichita, Kan., for the round-of-64 games here because, as Dylan said, "Tickets are probably easier to get than a seat at the bar back home."
Their hometown is Ground Zero for this NCAA tourney – the biggest city in a state that has all three of its Division I programs in the 68-team Big Dance. But the battleground has relocated here. Thanks to the NCAA tournament selection committee's sleight of hand, we are suddenly wheat-deep in Kansas college basketball fan politics on the edge of the Mississippi River.
The lordly Kansas Jayhawks, owners of more all-time victories than any program but Kentucky, are here.
The feisty Kansas State Wildcats, like Kansas a member of the powerful Big 12, are here.
And so are the Shockers, the historic third-tier school that is 34-0 and rather cheekily challenging the Sunflower State's status quo.
Specifically, the Shockers are challenging Kansas' eternal dominance.
"We've always been in the shadow," Dylan Donner said. "I think there is a little bit of a stepbrother attitude. They've been big brother a long time and they don't like seeing us stepping on their territory. And we're not going away, either."
All three will play Friday. None against each other. Midwest Region No. 1 seed Wichita State will play Cal Poly; South Region No. 2 seed Kansas will play Eastern Kentucky; and Midwest No. 9 seed Kansas State will play Kentucky.
So as their fans battle the swarms of UK fans for very pricey secondary-market tickets in the 19,260-seat arena, the question becomes this: Will those from the state of Kansas band together or turn on one another?
"That is the unknown," said Mark Ewing, senior programming manager for Kansas 22, a statewide syndicated TV channel. He paused and added, "The chatter on Twitter is pretty aggressive."
Shockers fans are the primary aggressors, it seems. Among them is Kellen Marshall, the teenage son of coach Gregg Marshall, who after Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament declared the Cyclones the second-best team in Kansas – ahead of the Jayhawks and behind You Know Who.
I talked to several Jayhawks fans whose attitude toward Wichita State ranged from complimentary to condescending – but not very angry, at least not yet.
"I have some Wichita State friends that like KU and some that hate KU," said Kansas fan Ron Key. "I think that's just the jealousy factor. I don't know if it's mutual dislike – most of the people in Kansas like them all, but may have one they love."
That like-'em-all part will get a serious test this weekend.
The first test will come Friday afternoon, when Kansas and Eastern Kentucky tangle. You can expect the UK fans to root for little-little-little brother from 20 miles down the road in Richmond, Ky. – but can Kansas expect its in-state brethren to be on its side?
Then Friday night, the top-seeded Shockers play No. 16 seed Cal Poly. Do the KU and K-State backers pull for the unprecedented upset or stick up for the Shockers?
And then in the nightcap Friday, do the Wildcats from Manhattan get the support, or the Wildcats from Lexington?
"I think they [KU fans] will root for Kentucky," said Dylan Donner, the Wichita fan. "They hate Kentucky, but they have a dire hatred for K-State."
The hatred for the Jayhawks seems to flow freely from some segments of Shocker Nation. The team motto of Play Angry seems to carry over to a fan base that Cheers Angry as well.
Sean Keeler of Fox Sports Midwest has referred to the three teams in the state as the sisters from the Brady Bunch: popular, pretty Marsha is Kansas; overlooked middle child Jan is Kansas State; and Wichita State is Cindy … "With a knife," Keeler said.
Cindy with a Knife has listened to some Jayhawks backers dismiss the undefeated record as a fraud built on inferior competition all season. And they have long chafed at the alleged lack of interest from Kansas in scheduling the Shockers. The last time they played was 1993, and Gregg Marshall has not shied away from stirring that particular pot as it simmers on the back burner. He wants a home-and-home series, not a two-for-one exchange that would favor the Jayhawks.
"I respect Marshall because he's not going to let the big schools push us around," Donner said. "I think [a series with Kansas] would be pretty awesome. Do I see it happening? Absolutely not. They don't have anything to gain."
Kansas assistant athletic director Jim Marchiony said Thursday that Wichita State has never formally requested renewing a series with the Jayhawks. But Wichita athletic director Eric Sexton said this later Thursday: "We've had some conversations – some off the cuff, some offhand – but we have those conversations with every program that will help us with non-conference scheduling. We have always said we will play anybody, any place."
The only place Kansas and Wichita State could play each other in 2014 is JerryWorld, for the national title. And there is a long way to go to get there.
In fact, though both are prohibitive favorites Friday, they could end up in dogfights Sunday in the round of 32. If it's New Mexico-Kansas, what do the Shockers fans do? And if it is Wichita State-Kentucky, do the Jayhawks spend all weekend in an unholy (and likely one-sided) alliance with UK fans?
America traditionally embraces the smaller schools in this tournament – but little old Wichita State is undefeated, ranked No. 1 and could find itself besieged by backers of two blueblood programs this weekend here.
Wichita State wanted the respect of a Goliath, right? The Shockers may well get it – in a weird and uncomfortable way – this weekend.
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