No. 4 UConn heads to No. 5 Kansas for rare matchup of the past two national champions

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Thousands of students were lounging inside Allen Fieldhouse by Wednesday afternoon, two full days before fifth-ranked Kansas was due to take the court again, dutifully announcing their presence every time someone barked out for roll call.

Getting in line that early is what it takes to snag a prime seat for one of the biggest college basketball games of the regular season.

In a throwback to an increasingly bygone era, when high-profile showdowns were less often lured to neutral floors by TV and sponsorship dollars, the Jayhawks will get a visit from fourth-ranked UConn on Friday night. It will be only the fifth time in the past decade that the past two national champions have played, and only the second nonconference game on a campus.

"I'm telling you from this standpoint right now, playing the defending national champions that are on a roll right now, it's as big a game as I could ever remember in early December," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said Thursday.

"I'm not going to say it's the biggest game we've ever played. That's not fair to anyone," Self clarified, "and I don't think they would say it was either, because there's been a lot of big games when they were playing Villanova or whatever. But I think both teams would agree it's about as big as it can be on December 1."

There have been 13 previous games involving the past two national champs since 2000, and the Jayhawks and Huskies have been involved in five of them. Two came just last year, when the Jayhawks split games with Big 12 rival Baylor, and three came in 2005, when UConn and Syracuse met twice in the regular season and again in the Big East Tournament.

In fact, most games over the past two decades involved conference foes in the regular season or their league tournament. In two cases, the past two national champs met in the NCAA Tournament, when it was inevitable that the best would play the best.

But a true nonconference game? The previous time that happened 2013, when Kentucky defeated Louisville.

More often, blue blood programs such as UConn and Kansas meet far from home. The Jayhawks beat No. 12 Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Chicago earlier this season, and split games against third-ranked Marquette and No. 10 Tennessee at the Maui Invitational. UConn has a game upcoming against No. 17 North Carolina in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

So when these high-profile games are on campus, such as the Huskies and Jayhawks will be Friday night? You get students camping out for seats, even if it means starting their vigil more than 48 hours before tipoff.

"Seeing them camp out pretty much after the last game, it's just like fuel to our fire," Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson said. "It just makes us want to get out there even harder, you know? When the lights turn on, we're just going to go super hard."

Indeed, on-campus games carry with them a different weight and feel for players. UConn guard Tristen Newton admitted that "taking the joy of winning out of somebody else's team is just a great feeling," and Kansas center Hunter Dickinson said that he thinks about - on an almost daily basis - the sterling record that the Jayhawks have compiled in the Phog.

"So that's something that, you know, I definitely take pride in, trying to defend this home court," said Dickinson, who will go toe-to-toe with UConn center Donovan Clingan in what should be one of the best matchups of big men all season.

"This is the mecca of college basketball," Dickinson said. "We know we're going to have our fans behind us. They're going to give us every ounce of energy they can possibly give us. So it's up to us to try to channel that."

This isn't the only power conference opponent that the Jayhawks are playing on campus this season. They have longtime and bitter rival Missouri in a couple of weeks, then head to Indiana in the return game of that series.

It will almost assuredly be the best, though.

"I think it's important for your fan base to play two good national powers a year at home, for your season-ticket schedule," Self said. "In today's world, if you're not playing those home-and-homes, you're playing a 'buy game' (against a lesser opponent), and I don't think that excites the fan base nearly as much as what this does."

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