Friday, February 2, 2018

KU and Arizona basketball: Comparing the fandom

The University of Kansas, in Lawrence, and the University of Arizona, in Tucson are both big basketball schools with very successful teams that regularly appear in the NCAA tournament; currently Kansas is ranked #7 and Arizona #9 in the AP Top 25. I lived in Kansas City, 40 miles from Lawrence, and worked for KU (at the KU Medical Center in KC, KS) for 15 years, and now have been back in Tucson (second “tour”) for over a year, so I’m in my second basketball season. I think I am ready to comment on some of the similarities and differences between Kansas and Arizona fans.

The similarities, of course, include large numbers of incredibly avid and passionate fans, who are regularly stoked by good teams and good coaches. Kansas has, so far, won or shared the championship in the Big 12 (now down to 10 teams, but still frequently referred to as the strongest conference in the nation) 13 straight years. Arizona is not quite as dominant in the Pac-12 (which, in fact, has 12 teams), with teams like UCLA to compete against, but is currently leading that conference. No team has the conference record of Kansas, but there are a number of other incredible dynasties, some of which (Kentucky, North Carolina) have won even more NCAA championships. The enthusiasm and noise level at both “The Phog” in Lawrence and McKale Center in Tucson is deafening. KU almost never loses at home (this year, though, it has twice) prompting an NBA scout I know to say it is less rewarding to see them at home than on the road because they always win at home. Plus they both have red and blue as school colors; I don't know why in Arizona, but KU was founded by New Englanders who were mostly graduates of Harvard and Yale, thus the "Crimson and the Blue".

But other schools have terrific home crowds; even smaller college (or really, university) towns can fill a stadium with loud cheering supporters; West Virginia U in Morgantown and Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum in Ames, and even Kansas State’s Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan (the “Little Apple”) are well-known to be difficult places to win even when the teams are not having their best years. (My Big-12 bias based on following them).

But back to KU and Arizona. Neither has to depend solely upon residents of a small college town; Tucson’s metropolitan area is 1 million, and Lawrence is 40 miles from KC. But this may provide two reasons for the difference that I see in the ubiquity and degree of enthusiasm I see; it is more widespread in Arizona. More people wear Arizona shirts. More people, or at least a higher percentage of people, talk about the basketball team as “we” (as in “we didn’t shoot free throws as well as we should last night against USC”). This is not to deprecate Kansas fans at all; I see it as a result of a very big city starving for any other sports outlet.

After all, while the KC metropolitan area is quite a bit bigger than Tucson (2.1 million, #30, vs Tucson’s 1 million, #53), the Kansas Jayhawks have competition. For starters, there are incredibly popular professional football (the Chiefs) and baseball (the Royals) teams in KC. Also, the KC area is more than half in Missouri and so there are lots of U Missouri fans. Even if Mizzou hasn’t the track record of KU in basketball, many of its fans still see the two schools as bitter rivals (despite Mizzou’s departure from the Big 12 to the Southeast Conference, which one wag noted was appropriate because, of course, Missouri had been a slave state, even though, like Kentucky, it didn’t join the Confederacy). So there is more competition for the sports enthusiast. Sure, there are professional sports teams in Phoenix (including an NBA team, the Suns), but Phoenix is over 100 miles away, far to go for a game. And besides it is Phewnix, which is seen by many Tucsonans as a place to hold ones nose. Talk about rivalry!). The Kansas City Star, as well as the Lawrence Journal-World, covers KU basketball extensively, but nothing like the Arizona Star. Even in the off-season there are very often articles (i.e., several times weekly) about U of A basketball, and in season they are at least daily, often, especially after a game, 3 or 4. Big recruits at KU will be covered off season in the KC Star, but then their sports pages are more full of Royals or Chiefs. 

Of course, Kansas is the only team in the nation called the Jayhawks, with one of the most recognizable logos in sports, while Arizona is just one of at least 9 “Wildcats” in NCAA Division I, several of which are also perennial basketball powers – Villanova is currently ranked #1 in the nation, Kentucky as noted is always a national contender, and even in Kansas there are the K-State Wildcats (Northwestern would be the next most prominent).

So both schools have great basketball teams, and both have rabid fan bases, but the combination of the size of Tucson and the lack of sports competition makes Arizona Fever much more omnipresent than KU fever. And me? I will certainly root for Arizona, as well as for KU. But, should they meet in the NCAA, I still will say Rock Chalk!

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