Bill Self was born in Edmond, Okla. He played basketball at Oklahoma State, and cut his teeth in the coaching profession at Kansas. He built up programs at Oral Roberts and Tulsa, and is now leading the Jayhawks in their pursuit of another national championship.
More than just about anybody, Self appreciates the rise of hoops in the heartland.
All three of the Sunflower State's programs are back in the NCAA tournament this year, and all are ninth seeds or better, led by No. 1 seed Wichita State. There are three schools from Oklahoma in the dance. Two from Nebraska. Two more made it from Iowa. Saint Louis is in the field, too.
Not a bad showing from America's breadbasket, those sparsely populated "flyover states" that are supposed to be lean on talent and generate little buzz from folks on the coasts.
"Hopefully we'll pull for each other," Self said, "but it is interesting."
In some ways it makes sense. The epicenter of college basketball, many argue, resides in Lawrence at the school where James Naismith and Phog Allen were not only coaches but also the game's inventor and pioneer. The Jayhawks play home games in Allen Fieldhouse, of course, a bastion of basketball situated at the base of a hill on Naismith Drive.
But in many ways, the success of schools such as Tulsa and Saint Louis makes little sense.
They don't have the strong tradition of Kansas. They don't have fertile recruiting grounds such as Chicago or the Dallas Metroplex in their own backyards. All they have are coaches willing to grind, fans every bit as zealous as those of Duke and Kentucky, and players often overlooked by those college basketball blue-bloods who arrive on campus with a chip on their shoulders.
The result? Turn on the tournament this week and you'll see Oklahoma against North Dakota State in a second-round game. Wichita State and Kansas State could meet in the third round, as could Nebraska and Creighton, a tantalizing matchup that just might generate as much interest in the state as Cornhusker football does on an autumn Saturday.
"If we're going to go and play and Nebraska is going to the NCAA tournament, why not go to the same place," asked Bluejays coach Greg McDermott. "I think it's going to be a great deal of fun."
McDermott's son, Doug, is the odds-on favorite for national player of the year. Those teams from the heartland? They're not short on talent, even if they often have to get creative — and go to great lengths — to land some of it.
Kansas star Andrew Wiggins is a freshman of the year candidate and potential No. 1 draft pick. So is the Jayhawks' Joel Embiid, who will miss the first part of the tournament with a back injury.
Oklahoma State features a dynamic guard in Marcus Smart. Iowa State has Canadian forward Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year. Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble and Oklahoma's Cameron Clark are game-changers. Kansas State has a talented freshman in its own right, Marcus Foster.
It's enough to make more traditional basketball states such as Indiana and Illinois — both of which were shut out of the NCAA tournament — feel just a wee bit jealous.
"There's great basketball in this area," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "You look at the Big 12 and what we've done this year being the No. 1 basketball conference in America, by far, I think it says a lot about the basketball in the Midwest right now."
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who grew up in Iowa and starred for the Cyclones, couldn't help but gush about the quality of the teams in the region — even those that didn't make the dance.
"I've been very impressed with what Tim Miles has done at Nebraska, and the ending they had, going on the road and winning at Michigan State, having a big run. North Dakota State, I'm a big fan of that team and that coach, so yeah, Midwest has got pretty good teams," he said.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger grew up in Silver Lake, Kan., played at Kansas State and later coached there. But he's also coached at Florida and UNLV, and with the Knicks and the Hawks in the NBA. And the college hoops being played in the Midwest this season? As good as he's ever seen.
"Obviously, you're selected to play in this tournament, you're selecting the best 68 teams in the country," Kruger said Monday, "and a lot come from the Midwest and the heartland, and basketball here in these leagues is outstanding."
Now, it's up to them to prove just how good against the rest of America.
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