The K Zone

The groan you just heard came from Lawrence, Kansas. 

The Kansas Jayhawks have been assigned the Region of Death for the NCAA Tournament, as in the Midwest Region with the almighty Kentucky Wildcats, the prohibitive favorite to win the title for the second time in four years and 10th time overall.

Kansas has only itself to blame for its predicament. Had it not blown a 17-point lead vs. Iowa State yesteday in the Big 12 tournament championship game, in front a virtual home crowd at Kansas City’s Sprint Center, the Jayhawks almost certinaly would have avoided placement in Kentucky’s region, instead going to the South region with Duke as the No. 1 seed. And the Jayhawks certainly would have had more people in Houston that it will in Cleveland should it make the regional. 

Should the Jayhawks beat New Mexico State, it could lead to the dream game–at least as far as the fanbase at another Sunflower State school is concerned. 

Wichita State has tried time and time and time again to play Kansas (and Kansas State) in the regular season, but the Jayhawks refuse. 

I understand Bill Self’s reasoning. First, why would KU want to give up a home game with 16,300 fans for one in Wichita, where Koch Arena seats less than 11,000? Second, It’s a lose-lose propoistion for the Jayhawks. If they win, they’re supposed to, becuase they’re in the Big 12 and the Shockers are in the Missouri Valley. Third, why give Wichtia State a platform to recruit and take away the top blue chips in Kansas away from Lawrence? 

If Wichita State is that hard up to play KU, it should be at least a five-for-one deal, and the game in Wichita would have to be at the larger Intrust Bank Arena downtown, not at Koch. If one of the games is at Kansas City, so be it. But no way KU should go home-and-home with Wichita State.

K-State should not, either. Same reasoning. 

Until Wichita State learns to give a little, it will be stuck where it is. The Shockers are a perch above other mid-majors, but they are not a major school. Not without football. 

KU and Wichita State have played in the NCAA tournament before. In New Orleans. 

The Shockers and Jayhawks each won their second round regional games at the Kansas Coliseum in Park City in the 1981 tournament to advance to the Midwest regional semifinals at the Louisiana Superdome. The other teams in the regional would become bitter conference rivals down the road, LSU and Arkansas. 

The 1980-81 Shockers were the finest team the school produced, until the 2012-13 and 2013-14 units. Coach Gene Smithson had a powerful team led by All-Americans and future NBA players Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston. Wichita State easily won the Missouri Valley Conference and was seeded third behind LSU and Arizona State in the regional.

KU was a solid, if unspectacular, unit in 1980-81, coached by Ted Owens, an outstanding coach who gets buried behind the headlines created by Naismith, Allen, Williams, Self and Larry Brown before and after him. Owens took the Jayahwks to the Final Four in 1971 and 1974, quite an achievement in the days when only one team per conference qualified for the NCAA tournament. 

The No. 7 seed Jayhawks beat Ole Miss in the first round, then upended the Sun Devils to join the Shockers, Razorbacks and Bayou Bengals in the Big Easy.

LSU fans have developed a healthy dislike for both KU and WSU through the years, but in 1980-81, the first Midwest semifinal was just a time killer before the main attraction.

What a time killer it was. The Shockers and Jayhawks engaged in one of the best games of the tournament, with little brother from the big city coming out on top–barely, 66-65. 

Coincidentally, K-State reached the 1981 West regional final under Jack Hartman despite being the No. 8 seed. The Wildcats shocked top ranked Oregon State in the second round and ousted Illinois in the Sweet 16 before falling to North Carolina, led by James Worthy, in the Elite Eight at Salt Lake City. 

WSU lost the Midwest regional final to LSU 96-85. Smithson would get the program put on major probation by the NCAA and fired, and it took Eddie Fogler several years to pull the Shockers out of the doldrums. It wasn’t until Mark Turgeon came along where WSU finally became a postseason contender year in and year out.

Owens was fired following two bad years in 1982 1nd 1983.  Larry Brown was hired from the New Jersey Nets and took the Jayhawks to five NCAA tournaments in five years, reaching hte Final Four in 1986 and winning it all in 1988. He bolted back to the NBA and the San Antonio Spurs shortly after the championship, well aware the NCAA was about to hammer KU for violations committed under Owens and himself. Roy Williams was left to clean up the mess. 

If KU and WSU meet Saturday in Louisville, the winner could have the unenviable task of taking on the mighty Big Blue from the Bluegrass. At least one team can say they made the Elite Eight if that happens. 

About David

I am a sportswriter for a group of weekly newspapers in small towns across northern Kansas. I grew up in New Orleans, went to college at LSU and wandered in the wilderness until Hurricane Katrina finally put me on the path to my current job.

Posted on March 15, 2015, in College Basketball and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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