The news keeps coming at the same rapid pace, but for now the big story around here is college basketball’s annual championship tournament.
Wichita is a hoops-crazed city in a hoops-crazed state, so the tournament’s always a big deal, but especially so this year. Downtown’s shiny new Intrust Arena is hosting four first-round games and two second-round contests, the University of Kansas’ Jayhawks squad is among the competitors, and so far it’s proving quite a party. The arena is a short stroll away from the Old Town drinking-and-dining district that local tax abatements created out of abandoned warehouses, as well as four hotels that are a lot swankier than you’d expect to find in a mid-sized prairie city, so business is brisk, and if there’s one thing Wichita loves more than basketball it’s business.
The city has spruced itself up for the occasion, going so far as to at long last take some high pressure water hoses to all the pigeon droppings under the railroad bridge on Douglas Avenue, and they’ve set up giant television screens and half-courts and other family entertainment in a recently renovated park where the winos used to gather. There are “March Madness” banners flapping from every light pole, and the bars are all fully stocked. All the out-of-state fans might also find time to visit the nearby and surprisingly excellent Wichita Art Museum, or take in a movie at the very plush Warren Theater in Old Town where they bring cocktails to your recliner seat, and there’s a remote chance they’ll wind up having at beer at Kirby’s Beer Story up in the bad part of town. Television networks can show some pretty of footage of the Keeper of Plains silhouetted by a pastel prairie sunset reflected on the Arkansas River, so it’s good publicity for the ol’ hometown.
Most of the fans packing the arena are in-state or local, there to root for their Jayhawks, so they already know the city even when it’s not spruced up. KU fans can be rather snooty about their team, which has been among the sport’s blue bloods for many decades, and is once again one of the top-seeded entries in the tournament, and thus entitled a virtual home court advantage in downtown Wichita, but we suppose it’s good for business. So far they seem well behaved as they drift from bar to bar, even after a 16-point victory over the University of Pennsylvania’s Quakers squad. The victory was not unexpected, as no first seed has ever lost to a 16th seed, but the Ivy League entrant in the tournament always seems to put up a tough fight, and they Jayhawks didn’t pull away until late in the second half, so maybe they’re saving the boisterousness for the second round game.
Our more beloved Kansas State University Wildcats and most beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers are also in the tournament, but they didn’t get the blue blood stream and wound up farther from home. KSU was a national powerhouse back when future pro ball guru Cotton Fitzsimmons was coaching in the ’50s, and then again when Jack Hartman was at the helm in the ’70s, with some notable teams in between and ever since, and they’ll once again be in the hunt down in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they’ll play the Creighton University’s Bluejays. After finishing in the top half of a very tough Big XII’s standing’s the ‘Cats are an eight seed playing a nine seed, which is what the gambler’s call a pick ’em, and if they win they’ll likely be playing topmost seed University of Virginia’s Cavaliers, but hope springs eternal in March.
The ‘Shocks have their own long blue collar tradition, with powerhouse years in the ’60s and ’80s and a steady climb to their current perennial top-20 status that has included a National Invitational Tournament title and an undefeated regular season and a Final Four appearance and a sweet, sweet upset over the hated Jayhawks in the championship tournament. After years of dominating the Missouri Valley Conference our ‘Shockers wound up in second place behind a very tough University of Cincinnati Bearcats team, but that was good enough to be a four seed and heavy favorite in a first-round game against Marshall University’s Thundering Herd today in San Diego. If the ‘Shocks play as well as they did when they whipped Cincy on its home court they should go far in the tournament, as we see it, but if they play as badly down the stretch as when they lost at home to the same team it might not get far past Marshall, and even that game is yet to be played.
Whatever the results, the weather’s lately been great around here, and the city’s all spruced up, and no matter what the Federal Bureau of Investigation finds out about the National Collegiate Athletic Association the game of basketball is still great. Around here we love playing it, watching it, arguing about it, and we pride ourselves on the many City League players who have gone on to collegiate and professional glory, and we get a wee bit mad about it every March.
— Bud Norman