March Madness on the Prairie, Minus the Politics

An unaccountably warm February got all the trees and flowers budding around here, but March has thus far been back to its usual cold and windy way on the Kansas plains. The Kansas State University Wildcats played themselves into the round of 64 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s basketball championship tournament on Tuesday, though, and thus pretty much all Kansans are once again warmed by the fever of March madness.
Every state has its own distinct sports culture, but especially here in the hinterlands where there’s not much else to do. Down south in Oklahoma they’re mainly concerned with football, although they can boast about Oklahoma A&M’s basketball championships back in the ’40s with original big man Bob Kurland and many other big-time players since, and our kin in Oklahoma City do love that Thunder team in the National Basketball Association, and they can also boast about that injun Jim Thorpe as an all around-athlete and such stalwart baseball white boys as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. The sparsely populated eastern part of Colorado that looks just like the sparsely western Kansas plays eight-man and six-man football and mostly concerns itself with five-man basketball just like western Kansas, but in the western half of the state they seem to ski and root for the Denver Broncos in the National Football League. Up north in Nebraska they only care about football, and although the baseball’s not bad they don’t seem at all embarrassed that except for Omaha’s Catholic Creighton University their basketball is abysmal. Back east in Missouri baseball’s the big thing, especially the Kansas City Royals and more especially the St. Louis Cardinals, and although they used to wreak occasional havoc in the old Big Eight’s basketball competitions they’re seemingly content as an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference.
Here in Kansas we take football and baseball seriously enough to have produced our per-capita share of top-notch players, and we’ve got high schools girls winning Olympic gold in skeet shooting and can boast of some legends in track and field and the skateboarders aren’t bad, but the big game by far around here is hoops. There’s no professional franchise in a state where the biggest city has only a half-million or so in its metro area, but we’ve got three state universities competing in the collegiate championship, several more playing in their lower divisions’ tournaments, the state’s highly competitive community college teams are always contenders, and even at the small school tourneys the state high school championships always feature enough talent to draw the recruiters for the next level.
Even the kids who didn’t make the high school teams are playing in the driveways and playgrounds all over Kansas, and we’d put them up against the kids playing in the driveways and playgrounds anywhere else. Folks have been playing the game around here ever since it was invented by James Naismith for the Young Men’s Christians Associations that were here from the start, and ever since they’ve been pretty good at it. Naismith coached at the University of Kansas, where he’s the only coach with a losing record, and its program has won multiple national championships and is one of the most blue-programs in the country, with another number one seed in this year’s tournaments and a decent shot at winning it all. The land grant cow college Kansas State University has some big time wins to brag about, including several notable ones over the the snooty KU, many provided by those tough-nosed kids from the hard-luck small towns that those small school championships always seem to turn up.
As good as those small town Kansas kids are, we’re from the big bad city of Wichita and take a particular pride in our local brand of ball. The City League has sent several players to the pro ranks, including a couple of nice guys we went to school with, and many more to Division I collegiate glory, and we recommend that you get in shape for a pickup game around here. Although we spent a couple of all-too-carefree years at K-State and only a couple of hours at Wichita State University we root for the WSU Wheatshockers, because Wichita is our city and the ‘Shocks are its team. Back in the ’30s and ’40s they used to play their homes games at the old Forum building downtown rather on the campus, and tended to draw more from the local factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados rather than students, and although a local haberdasher built a roundhouse on campus in the ’50s and a local oil-refining billionaire rebuilt to state of the art more recently the Shocks still belong more to the factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados than the students. Over the years, Wichita State fans have had some lulls but also some things to cheer about.
Back in the ’60s WSU had some championship years in the then-feared Missouri Valley Conference, went to a Final Four in ’64, had another run in the ’80s that would have resulted in a Final Four if not for some recruiting violations and probations, made a few tournaments and won a few games in the ’90s, and for the past decade have been on another tear. Coach Greg Marshall inherited the team at a very down point, immediately started bringing it up, and has since notched a National Invitational Tournament victory and a Final Four and a 35-0 streak and a run of tournament appearances with at least one victory that bests some of the blue-blood programs, and we hopeful that will continue. As always the ‘Shockers are under-ranked as a 10 seed, but most of the sportswriters regard them as a favorite in their first-round matchup against Dayton University, and the Vegas line has the ‘Shockers as a 6.5 point favorite, and with all due respect to the hard-working factory of Dayton we like our chances. In the second round they’d most likely meet the University of Kentucky, which is about as blue-blooded a program as there is and the same ones who ended that 35-and-0 run in a down-to-the-final-second thriller, but who knows? The Washington Post’s supposed expert ranks the ‘Shocks as the sixth most likely winner overall, just behind KU and just ahead of Kentucky, and a Facebook friend altered us to some site that predicts WSU beating not only Kentucky but also the blue-blooded University of California-Los Angeles and University of North Carolina to get to another Final Four. Those scribes rightly note that “Wichita thrives on beating up snobs from the rich side of town and will relish giving UK a bloody nose,” and predicts “Wichita is going to the rich side of town with a pack of matches and a five gallon tank of gasoline and try to burn everything to the ground.
As nice as it sounds that’s a bit optimistic for our dour prairie souls to believe, but one can always hope. Next year the ‘Shocks are bringing everybody back from an already 30-win team, and they’ll all be one year better if Marshall’s methods once again prove true, and they’re also bringing in a juco player of the year and this 7’2″ Danish guy that looks pretty good from the YouTube videos, and the thought of how good that team will be should get us though one more change of the damnable seasons we experience around here.
In the meantime Kansas has three teams still playing, and even the hoops-crazed and more densely populated states of North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and New York and California can’t match that, and we’re even rooting for that snooty KU and hoping for a rematch next year, which would allow the ‘Shocks to go 3-and-0 against the rich kids in tournament competitions, and we’ll still put our Kansas kids in the driveways and playgrounds up against anyone. Back in the day we had a pretty mean hook shot ourselves, even if we never came close to playing on the high school team with those future pros, and on these cold and windy days that’s a warm memory of a cold wintertime’s most beautiful game.

— Bud Norman

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The End of the Season

Basketball season is over in Kansas, spring has not yet arrived on these windy plains, and gloominess has settled over the Sunflower State.
Spring will get here sooner or later, we hope, and basketball will be back next year, we can be sure, but for now there’s simply no shaking that pervasive sense of gloom. The collegiate tournament lingers on, the professionals will keep playing until the sun is hot, and the local driveways and park courts will then be full of aspiring young Kansas hoopsters, but another year of diabolical basketball disappointment was entered into the state’s record books this past weekend. Kansas State University’s Wildcat squad went down with a fight in the first round of the tourney to the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas Jayhawks lost a close game in the round of thirty-two to the Stanford University Cardinal, and our beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers missed a last-second three-point attempt in an epic battle to fall at the same point in the tournament to that pesky Kentucky team.
In other states where football or NASCAR racing or surfing some other such nonsense dominate the sporting scene it will be hard to understand, but in Kansas this is a rather devastating development. We take our basketball all too seriously here in Kansas, no matter how the loyalties are divided. The KSU team has enjoyed some notable success over the years, and gave the world Tex Winter and his sophisticated triangle offense, as any stereotypically hayseed fan of that fine cow college will tell you, so first-round losses to even the most storied programs are hard to take there. The KU squad has been playing the game since its inventor joined the faculty and has won the whole she-bang on three separate occasions, as any of its alumni will tell you ad nauseum, so losing to an even snootier school such as Stanford is a bitter disappointment, especially when they had one of those one-and-done pro prospects that was supposed to wow the world. Even lowly WSU has had some good years, too, and although many of them ended in second-round losses there were tantalizingly plausible reasons to believe that this season would be stretch deep into the competition.
The ‘Shockers hadn’t lost since last April, after all, when they took the eventual national champions to the wire in the semi=final round of the tournament. Since then the plucky band of overlooked recruits had beaten all comers, including four tournament teams along with the mid-major nobodies, and after steamrollering a hapless Cal-Poly University squad they went into the second round with an unprecedented 35-game winning streak. It was only unprecedented because Indiana University’s ’76 squad didn’t get as many games, and a couple of UCLA teams from the dynasty days stretched their much longer winning streaks over consecutive seasons, but by any measure it was a good run. Even the most fatalistic long-time ‘Shocker fans were emboldened to an unfamiliar hope, and the city at large was awash in the black-and-gold of the hometown team. Almost everyone around here had become fond of these lads, including a friend of ours who works at a local restaurant where the team had a weekly meal, who swears they’re the most respectful college students she’d ever encountered, and the city seemed to gained a pep in its economically depressed step because of their efforts.
A predictably bad break of bracketing luck had put them against a blue-chip laden team from Kentucky, which has won the whole she-bang five times more than even almighty KU and was the pre-season favorite to add that total, and in the end their height and talent and a some questionable calls and few missed ‘Shocker free-throw attempts made the two-point difference. There was considerable satisfaction in a 35-and-one season, and seeing the our blue-collar local boys put up such a spirited fight against the blue bloods, but we will always look back on this great season with a nagging realization of what might have been. That was a damned good team that could have shown those pro prospect blue chippers how it’s done, and the city will have to take an immense satisfaction in that.
Spring will be here sooner or later, we still hope, and soon our attention will turn once again to the Wichita Wingnuts. Our local unaffiliated minor-league baseball team tore up the American Association’s roster of similarly odd-named teams from similarly mid-sized cities last year but lost in an upset in the championship series, and we’re hoping that another summer of drinking beer in the smoking section of our charmingly antiquated ballpark will provide the same welcome distraction from dreary reality. In the meantime our most wonderful mother is battling a serious illness in a San Diego hospital, and we’re awaiting a call to assure that all is well, and even in this basketball-crazed state we are reminded of what’s really important.

— Bud Norman