Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: If KU cooperates, the NCAA regional coming to KC could be epic

Big-stakes basketball makes its return to Kansas City as the Midwest Regional arrives next week to send one triumphant team to Arizona for the Final Four.
Big-stakes basketball makes its return to Kansas City as the Midwest Regional arrives next week to send one triumphant team to Arizona for the Final Four.

Back in the day, when the NCAA was based in the area, Kansas City long was the epicenter of its postseason college basketball tournament.

What would later become known as the “Final Four” was held at Municipal Auditorium nine times from 1940 to 1964 and again at Kemper Arena in 1988, making for a still-record 10.

But unless and until the city has a domed stadium, or the NCAA relents on its trend since 1996 of awarding Final Fours only to cities with such accommodations, those days are over.

So the next-best thing is to play host to a regional, which hasn’t happened here since 1995 — a streak that will come to a compelling end March 23-25 when the Sprint Center welcomes the Midwest Regional.

The marquee attraction, of course, would be top-ranked and top-seeded Kansas, whose fans in anticipation of this bracketing doubtless have been stockpiling tickets through whatever means they can for months.

And how enticing would it be if the Big 12 champion Jayhawks met fifth-seeded Iowa State, the Big 12 tournament champions with whom they split two meetings in the regular season, in the Sweet 16?

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With resourceful Cyclones fans sure to find ways of hording tickets of their own, the game would have the makings of another monumental matchup in the postseason lore of the city.

Trouble is, nothing beyond No. 1 seeds prevailing over No. 16 seeds (they are 128-0) can be assumed in the NCAA Tournament — and Kansas figures to be severely tested in its presumed second-round game after it faces the winner of the contest between North Carolina Central and Cal-Davis.

Awaiting the Jayhawks after that opener in Tulsa would be the winner of the Miami-Michigan State game.

Miami is coached by Jim Larranaga, who coached 11th-seeded George Mason to the 2006 Final Four … starting with an upset of Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team.

The Spartans, meanwhile, are just 19-14 and seeded ninth, and few think of this as a vintage Tom Izzo team.

But … it’s a Tom Izzo team.

Meaning that more often than not it becomes possessed in March: Izzo is 46-18 in NCAA play with seven Final Four appearances in his 19 seasons. And you can bet his team will be fired up to play a year after it was evicted from the tournament in the first round by Middle Tennessee State.

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Whoever wins is capable of giving Kansas a tussle, and the Jayhawks are a fascinating and maybe even confounding team to try to assess because their overall dominance (29-4) has an asterisk attached:

Eight of their 14 Big 12 wins were by six points or fewer, and it’s in the eye of the beholder — and ultimately in the truth serum of the tournament — whether that makes them tough-minded and destined for greatness or … vulnerable, since their games are seldom decisive.

KU, of course, will have back freshman Josh Jackson, who was suspended and missed in many ways in the 85-82 loss to Texas Christian in the Big 12 quarterfinals.

His absence during the game highlighted Kansas’ slim margin for error and how thin KU’s bench is (three points against TCU) if foul trouble or an injury comes into play.

Here’s betting Kansas emerges …

And here’s hedging that bet to say you never know.

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No doubt the regional would lose some local luster if KU doesn’t get here, but the field is deep enough in potential other plot lines that there will be much intrigue no matter what.

Consider some of the possibilities:

▪ Izzo’s Spartans against Iowa State and Monte Morris, the Big 12 tourney’s most outstanding player who was jilted by Michigan State — the place he’d wanted to go all his life.

▪ The other half of the bracket feeding into Kansas City includes another Big 12 team, 10th-seeded Oklahoma State, which will take on seventh-seeded Michigan. And Michigan is a story in itself. The Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament after their plane bound for Washington, D.C., was involved in a harrowing accident and slid off the runway, and now you’re left to wonder whether that portends a long tournament run … or a team that is emotionally drained.

▪ It also features third-seeded Oregon (the Pac-12 co-champion) vs. 14th-seeded Iona and No. 6 seed Creighton against No. 11 Rhode Island — setting up a possible second-round game between former Creighton coach Dana Altman and his old school.

The thorny grouping also includes second-seeded Louisville and fourth-seeded Purdue (the Big Ten regular-season champ), so if it somehow plays to seed we’ll see those two here along with KU and the Ducks.

The NCAA Tournament rarely plays out that neatly, of course.

But however it unfurls, a Final Four team will be produced in the city that has held more of those events than any other and has known only preliminary-round tournament games (five times) since 1995.

Until now.

If it’s not quite the same as the Final Four, at least it’s back as close to home as it can get now — as a direct launch point that figures to be an affair to remember … especially if KU cooperates.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian