COLUMBIA — From the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse hang five banners — one for each national championship the Kansas men's basketball team claims to have won.

Most people look at the banners and don't think twice. Kansas is one of the winningest programs in college basketball, so five national championships is no surprise.

The more basketball-educated, however, do a double-take. There are national championship banners for 1922 and 1923, despite the fact that the NCAA tournament didn't start until 1939.

So if the NCAA didn't declare Kansas to be the champion, who did? The answer is somewhat unusual.

The Helms Athletic Foundation

In 1939, a group of so-called experts led by Bill Schroeder got together and voted on who had won the championship each year since 1901. The group, called the Helms Athletic Foundation, retroactively named Kansas the national champion for 1922 and 1923. Up went the banners.

"If they want to count championships from 1922 and 1923, then that's fine," Missouri senior guard Kim English said. "I respect Kansas basketball to the fullest. I respect their players, respect their coaches big time.

"I just hate their fans. I hate them. Their fans kind of have a false sense of reality about what Kansas basketball is. It's not Kentucky. It's not UCLA."

In terms of championships, that much is certainly true. Kentucky has won seven NCAA tournament championships, and UCLA has won 11. Kansas has won three.

Kentucky has also won two Helms Foundation national championships. But unlike Allen Fieldhouse, Rupp Arena shows no mention of those championships.

Kansas Associate Athletics Director Jim Marchiony said he doesn't think there's anybody still at Kansas who was part of the process to include those championships.

"We've always counted them," he said.

1922: Did Kansas or Missouri win the national championship?

Author and former Kansas City Star writer Martin Manley has done a lot of research into Kansas' Helms Foundation national championships. He agrees with English, writing last year, "It’s as though the school didn’t think its tradition was good enough that it needed to exaggerate its accomplishments."

A quick look to the rafters of Mizzou Arena is all it takes to see that the Missouri men's basketball program never exaggerated its accomplishments. There isn't much up there.

But there could be. Believe it or not, Missouri actually won two mythical national championships of its own. The Helms Foundation never awarded one to Missouri, but a guy sitting in front of his computer in 1993 did.

Patrick Premo, a professor at St. Bonaventure, unveiled his Premo Power Polls in 1993. Like the Helms Foundation, the Premo Poll retroactively named national champions back to 1901. Missouri was named the champion for 1921 and 1922.

What better way to add more fuel to the Missouri-Kansas rivalry than to have both schools claim the 1922 national championship?

Legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen, after whom the Jayhawks' arena is named, wrote about the last game of the 1922 season in his book "Better Basketball." The game was between 16-0 Missouri and 15-2 Kansas in Columbia. Missouri had beat Kansas in Lawrence earlier in the season, but Kansas won the last game 26-16. (Clearly, teams have gotten better at scoring in the past 90 years.)

Without an NCAA tournament, the season ended there. There was no clear-cut winner then, and there will never be one.

Confusion about conference championships

Although they still exist in college football, mythical national championships seem to be a thing of the past in college basketball. But schools still exaggerate their success in terms of conference championships.

Again, Kansas is an offender. The KU athletics website says that the Jayhawks just won their eighth-straight Big 12 championship. This is true if the conference's regular season champion — and not the conference tournament champion — is the official Big 12 champion. Which it isn't.

Missouri and Kansas both call themselves the 2009 Big 12 basketball champion. Both teams have rings to show for it.

The Big 12, like just about every conference in the country, crowns a regular season champion and a conference tournament champion. In 2009, Kansas went 14-2 during the Big 12 regular season, the best record in the league. Missouri won three straight games at the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.

Neither school bothers to clarify which championship it won.

More impressive: a regular-season title or a tournament title?

The case for which one is more impressive could be made either way.

"Personally, I think that the regular season champion is more important than the tournament," Marchiony said. "It speaks to achievement over the course of the season rather than a few games."

Manley agrees.

"The tournaments are not to decide conference championships," he said. "They are for two reasons only — one, make money, and two, make money."

The flip side of the argument is that a conference tournament championship is important because every major professional sports entity rules the winner of its playoff to be the champion. The winner of the Super Bowl, for example, is the team that won all of its playoff games, not the team with the best record during the regular season.

All across the country, conference tournaments are treated as equally or more important than the regular season.

"I know in the ACC, and its been this way for a long time, there's no question winning the ACC tournament is what it was all about," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "I think that's probably the case around the country in some leagues.

"You can't take away from what Kansas has done. I mean, they won the first true round robin in this league. They should be commended for that. That was a hell of a job, and I think they'll get their due in terms of how they're seeded in the NCAA tournament."

In some conferences, the distinction is extremely important. Every conference except the Ivy League, which doesn't have a tournament, grants its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament to the winner of its conference tournament.

Some people, such as junior guard Michael Dixon, don't see the need to declare one championship any more important than the other.

"I guess it's two seasons," Dixon said. "I mean, we consider the tournament a season, a three-game season. Hopefully. So, I mean, it's two different champions, just like there's a conference champion and an NCAA champion."

Missouri lost out on the Big 12 regular season championship but has a chance to win the Big 12 tournament championship this weekend in Kansas City. The Tigers play their first game at 6 p.m. Thursday against the winner of Wednesday's game between Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

If Missouri wins, it'll be sure to call itself the Big 12 Champion.

But before you get impressed by this, or by a national championship banner hanging from the rafter of an arena, do some research first.

Recommended for you