We could use our math compass to draw a 300-mile-or-so radius around the college basketball excellence near Kansas City, but let’s move the center point some 40 miles west to Lawrence.
Not to the University of Kansas, although the Jayhawks contribute to this exercise, but to two cemeteries on 15th Street in east Lawrence.
James Naismith, basketball’s inventor who watched his game grow from his position as a Kansas professor and administrator over the final 40 years of his life, rests in Memorial Park.
Across the street in Oak Hill rests Forrest “Phog” Allen, among the game’s first great coaches whose promotional skills pushed basketball into the spotlight.
Their influence on the game spread nationally and internationally, but their base was Lawrence, the Kansas City region and the Midwest.
And they’d love this NCAA Tournament, so saturated in Middle America entries. Public schools and private, historical and non-traditional powers, there are tourney teams in every direction from their resting place.
Looking north, the state of Nebraska was home to two NCAA Tournament watch parties. That hasn’t happened since 1991. Were there watch parties then?
Creighton and Doug McDermott, the top national player of the year candidate, gets a No. 3 seed. Nebraska is back in the tournament for the first time since 1998 and will look for its first NCAA Tournament victory ever. If Creighton and Nebraska win their openers, the schools will meet in San Antonio for a spot in the Sweet 16.
To the northeast is Iowa State and Iowa. The drought of NCAA Tournament togetherness from the state’s two largest schools isn’t as long, nine years. But it seems like forever in a state where fans love their basketball.
To the east is the lone glaring omission to this circle of Midwest hoop fest. Missouri looked like an NCAA Tournament team most of the year, but faded down the stretch and has accepted an NIT assignment. That leaves Saint Louis as the Show-Me State’s lone NCAA representative.
To the south, Oklahoma bursts onto the bracket with three entries, when it appeared only a month ago that one would reach the NCAAs. Oklahoma played at a high level throughout the year and its second straight tourney appearance under coach Lon Kruger was never in doubt.
But Oklahoma State, the preseason Big 12 co-favorite, appeared to play its way into oblivion with a seven-game long streak in league play, which included the three games when star guard Marcus Smart was suspended. But the Cowboys rallied for a strong finish and are back for a second straight year.
Tulsa is the biggest surprise. The Golden Hurricane lost their first four games and six of their first seven under second-year coach Danny Manning. The team stood 4-9 headed into 2014. But Tulsa roared to a 13-3 Conference USA record, tying three others for first, and won the conference tournament championship game for its 11th straight victory and the program’s first NCAA appearance since 2003.
The compass completes its circle in Kansas, where all three Division I programs are dancing. The most highly regarded isn’t Kansas or Kansas State but top-seeded Wichita State, which completed the most perfect season in college basketball history — 34-0. The Shockers bid for a second straight Final Four appearance from the Midwest Region.
Kansas State is in the NCAA Tournament for a school-record fifth straight year and for the second time under coach Bruce Weber. And if his Wildcats defeat the Kentucky Wildcats, the K-State and Wichita State will clash Sunday in St. Louis.
As for the Jayhawks, this marks consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance No. 25, college basketball’s longest active streak and two shy of matching the record of North Carolina, from 1975-2001.
Naismith was Kansas’ first coach, and Allen coached the Jayhawks to the most victories. Their teams traveled throughout the Midwest, and often on Kansas’ stops, Naismith would serve as a referee and welcomed any opportunity to teach the game.
Allen reveled in the competition and his battles against many of the Midwest teams that are headed to this year’s NCAA Tournament.
This year’s bracket is a tribute to them.Nebraska, No. 11 seed in West
An amazing turnaround under second-year coach Tim Miles, who paid his dues at Mayville State, Southwest Minnesota State, North Dakota State and Colorado State.Creighton, No. 3 seed in West
The Blue Jays have the nation’s top shooter in Doug McDermott, the coach’s son who has led Creighton to its finest season.Iowa State, No. 3 seed in East
The Big 12 Tournament champions are sizzling under coach Fred Hoiberg, affectionately known as “The Mayor.”Iowa, No. 11 seed in Midwest
The Hawkeyes, NIT finalists last year, have returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 and are led by all-conference guard Roy Devyn Marble.Saint Louis, No. 5 seed in Midwest
Jim Crews took over for Rick Majerus, who died before last season, and he had led the Billikens to two straight NCAA Tournament appearances.Tulsa, No. 13 seed in South
Danny Manning joins a long list of coaches who have played and coached in the Final Four. But no coach has played a tournament like he did in 1988. The Golden Hurricane are dancing for the first time since 2003.Oklahoma State, No. 9 seed in West
The Cowboys looked like world-beaters at the beginning and end of their season. The middle they’d like to forget, but Oklahoma State is playing well now.Oklahoma, No. 5 seed in West
Coach Lon Kruger knows how to get to the NCAA Tournament. He has taken five different programs to the postseason, and has the Sooners dancing for the second straight year.Wichita State, No. 1 seed in Midwest
The most prefect regular-season team of all time takes a 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament. And because some don’t think the Shockers deserve a No. 1 seed, coach Gregg Marshall can play the disrespect card.Kansas State, No. 9 seed in Midwest
Five straight NCAA Tournament appearances ties a program record, and this was supposed to be something of a retooling year for the Wildcats.Kansas, No. 2 seed in South
If it’s March, it’s must be the Jayhawks. College basketball’s most consistent winner must find a way to win without center Joel Embiid.