NCAA Tournament now a statewide affair
Welcome, sports fans, to the most exciting month in all of basketball.
It's the time of year when even the most casual fans spend hours on end with one eye glued to the TV and another on the countless brackets they so carefully constructed. For my fellow Kansans, however, this year is a little different. The Sunflower State has a three-horse race on its hands.
Not since 1988 have Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State each earned an NCAA Tournament bid in the same season. But, for the first time since Ronald Reagan (yes, the actor) was in the White House, all three have punched their ticket to the Big Dance.
For the Jayhawks, 2011-12 has just been more of the same. Several of last season's starters were gone, but like clockwork, Bill Self filled the gaps and coached KU to its eighth straight Big 12 title. KU is almost certainly in line for a top seed after winning the league outright.
When conference play began, the Wildcats jumped on a roller coaster and never got off. Their tournament status seemed uncertain until back-to-back wins over No. 10 Baylor and No. 3 Missouri in February. It's now just a matter of seeding, and Frank Martin's squad can still help its case. Another meeting with Baylor looms in the first round of this week's Big 12 tournament, and a win would likely put K-State within reach of a No. 6 or 7 seed.
The Shockers have been absent from the tournament since Mark Turgeon led the 2005-06 team to the Sweet 16. Fresh off an NIT championship under current coach Greg Marshall last March, WSU rolled to its first regular season Missouri Valley Conference championship since 2006 and currently sits at No. 16 in both national polls. Marshall's group came up short of an MVC tournament title, but that didn't seem to hurt its tournament stock. Expect the Shockers to return to the field as a No. 5 or 6 seed.
Before I make my bold and daring predictions, I'll let you in on a little secret. When it comes to picking winners in March, I'm no Joe Lunardi. The last time my bracket was even remotely accurate, I was in elementary school, picking winners based on who had the best mascots. (I'm not entirely certain today's so-called "experts" don't follow a similar method, but that's another story.) Either way, here goes nothing:
With the exception of its national title run in 2008, KU's tournament history under Self has been about as predictable as the Kansas weather. Between Virginia Commonwealth, Northern Iowa, Bradley and Bucknell, plenty of mid-majors have "prematurely" ended the Jayhawks' season. It would take a big upset to keep Self's group from at least reaching the Sweet 16, but a bad night against the wrong No. 8 or 9 seed could mean another early collapse.
K-State's inconsistency this season makes for a tough guess, regardless of who the Wildcats draw. If they play like they did in either meeting against Oklahoma — both losses — they could be one-and-done. If they repeat the performances they had at Baylor or Missouri, they could make a deep run. My best guess, though, is an exit in the second round (against anyone but Wisconsin).
It's hard to label Wichita State as a traditional mid-major. Unlike former Cinderella stories like VCU, Butler or George Mason, the Shockers won't enter the tourney under the radar. They've been a mainstay in the polls for nearly a month and have received plenty of media attention all season. That being said, if they can avoid all the hoopla and continue to play their game, don't be surprised to see them survive the first weekend.
No matter how the chips fall, this month should be a fun one for hoops fans across the state. Maybe all three schools will get hot at the right time. Maybe they'll all bow out early. Only time will tell, but regardless, there are plenty of state bragging rights on the line.
By all means, let the Madness begin.