LAWRENCE, Kan. — 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.