OKLAHOMA CITY - For the longtime Arizona State basketball fan who thought the Sun Devils once had a chance to reach the Final Four, today's matchup with Kansas has some significance.
For it was 22 years ago that Ned Wulk's last great season came to a devastating end at the hand's of the unheralded Jayhawks in Wichita, Kan., in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Now the roles have reversed as the sixth-ranked Jayhawks (26-7), though not as deep as they were at season's start, are still entertaining Final Four designs and the Sun Devils could ruin them.
The Jayhawks are the No. 2 seed in the West and need to defeat ASU to reach the Sweet 16 for the third successive season.
Back in 1981, the Sun Devils of Alton Lister, Sam Williams, Johnny Nash, Byron Scott and Lafayette "Fat" Lever were fresh off a 20-point road dismantling of top-ranked and undefeated Oregon State when they were given a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. Kansas crushed ASU, 88-71, and Sports Illustrated sniffed that third-ranked ASU "had tripped over its press clippings."
More accurately, ASU succumbed to the pressures of expectations.
But there's none of that now. It's all on Kansas.
"We don't have any pressure on us," said senior forward Tommy Smith.
"We're a team that it's going to be hard to take our confidence away. Other people might not expect us to win but we expect to win every game. We'll come into the game very confident."
One reason for that confidence is Kansas has already been defeated by two Pac-10 teams, Arizona and Oregon.
Kansas looked vulnerable in slipping past Utah State on Thursday night.
The Devils, along with KU coach Roy Williams, expect to see a different Kansas team today at the Ford Center.
"They're a great team. They have great tradition," Smith said. "I'm pretty positive they will be ready."
Said Williams, "We have got to play better than we did. We have to rebound the ball better. Hopefully, we have that first game (jitters) out of the way."
Kansas is another three-man team with sophomore Keith Langford emerging to join senior stars forward Nick Collison and guard Kirk Hinrich. The Jayhawks’ top muscle man inside, 6-foot-9 sophomore Wayne Semien (dislocated shoulder) is out for the season.
"Kansas is a tremendous outside shooting team and a tremendous transition team," ASU coach Rob Evans said. "They're a tough, hard-nosed team. They do a lot of changing defenses on you. Hopefully, we'll be ready for that."
Both coaches said it would be foolhardy to zero in on the star players.
"Once you start spending too much of your focus on one or two players, it's the other ones who end up hurting you most," Evans said.
Langford had 22 points against Utah State and the Jayhawks hope he plays as well today. Williams said he needs more from Hinrich, who scored only eight points and attempted just seven shots.
"I do need him to be more offensive-minded," Williams said. "We need to get him in rhythm. (But) we're playing a good defensive team."
The Devils (20-11) played Memphis on a strictly neutral floor. The Jayhawks’ old Big 8 loyalties have the Oklahoma partisans backing them against ASU.
"It's hostile territory. Our kids are used to it," Evans said, noting McArthur Court and McKale Center as places that prepped his team for this situation. "But I told the kids, it's 5-on-5. You have to play the game."
The Thursday-Saturday format is what the Pac-10 plays. Games are usually three days apart in the Big 12.
"We're accustomed to this," Evans said.
Which means these Devils already have a leg up on their more talented predecessors of 20 years past.