College Sports

Road to Final Four: For many, Kansas is cradle of college hoops

Icy road conditions are in the forecast in late December throughout the Kansas City region. Meteorologists advise people to only leave their house if they absolutely have to on a wintry Saturday afternoon.

The Kansas-Georgetown game at Allen Fieldhouse apparently justifies driving on the dicey streets. Fans pack the old barn to the rafters again, as 16,300 cheer the Jayhawks to a 22-point victory.

This is nothing new to those familiar with Kansas basketball — the fans showing up in terrible weather conditions or the victory.

“It never matters who we played, how the weather was, people were going to be standing in line,” said SMU associate head coach Tim Jankovich, who was an assistant coach at KU from 2003-07.

“One of the most incredible sights I ever saw was my first late night, the first practice of the season, thousands and thousands of people were lined up. And not everyone got in and that’s just for the first night of practice.

“There’s a completely different passion at KU and in Lawrence about college basketball. It’s more than really any place I’ve ever seen.”

Bill Self still shakes his head at how rabid the fan base can be at times. Self, who is only the eighth basketball coach in the school’s history, gave a telling example:

At his previous coaching stops, Self would routinely alter the starting lineup. If a reporter asked about a particular change, Self’s general response: “Because I wanted to do it that way.”

That had been satisfactory enough at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois. Not at Kansas. Fans want to know why a certain player is starting or on the bench, and the reporters who follow the team daily eventually find out.

“It’s a big deal who starts? I never heard that before here,” Self said. “But it’s because everyone is so interested in the team and program. If someone isn’t starting, everybody is trying to investigate on exactly why that happened.”

“So that’s the one thing I’m still not used to. Anything you say at anytime can be a sound bite and there are so many things that are a big deal here.”

To some coaches, that may be a drawback but it isn’t to Self. It’s part of what makes coaching at Kansas special and one of the reasons he feels it has the chance to be a “forever” job.

“It’s a job where you sit and say, ‘What’s better out there?’ ” Self said. “I don’t think you leave Kansas to go to a better place, but it’s hard to stay at a place forever. You don’t see the Coach [Mike] Krzyzewskis or the Coach [Dean] Smiths very often. But the bottom line is this is one place you can do it.”

Storied program

Kansas is the most common denominator between every tradition-rich college basketball program. That happens when your school’s first coach, James Naismith, invented the game, and your school’s most iconic coach, Phog Allen, is known as the father of basketball coaching.

Allen has an impressive list of protégés who began their basketball careers playing under him. From legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp to North Carolina’s Dean Smith to John McLendon, the first African-American college coach inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The list stretches well beyond that and now it’s become a generational deal.

Kentucky coach John Calipari spent time at Kansas as a graduate assistant under Larry Brown. So did Self. North Carolina coach Roy Williams landed his first head coaching job at KU and had a successful 15-year run from 1988-2003.

College basketball analyst Jay Bilas likens Kansas to the popular “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game, a reference to the actor who can be linked by movie buffs to everyone else in Hollywood in six steps.

“You can just feel the history at Kansas,” Bilas said. “You don’t have to be told it.”

From Wilt Chamberlain to Danny Manning to Clyde Lovellette to Paul Pierce, some of college basketball’s greatest stars played at Kansas. It’s one of the reasons why Kansas is consistently in the mix for the top high school recruits in the country.

Their star freshman last season, Ben McLemore, grew up in Missouri but chose Kansas. The Kansas-Missouri rivalry is among the most bitter in the country, and it took a lot of convincing to get McLemore to play for the rival school of his mom’s favorite team, Missouri.

“It was tough to pick, but I feel I picked the right choice,” said McLemore, now with the Sacramento Kings. “The whole history of Kansas is huge and the fans. And the environment is great.”

Fan passion

Allen Fieldhouse has been considered the best college basketball venue in the country. It’s always near the top of most lists and, just this year, voted it the loudest arena in the country.

Bilas refers to it as the St. Andrews of basketball. It opened in 1955 and the Jayhawks have won more than 700 games in the building. Attendance has been at its capacity 16,300 for every game since the 2001-02 season.

So what sets it apart from the rest?

“It isn’t that on a one-time basis or a two-time basis that other places aren’t as good,” Self said. “I’ve been to Assembly Hall in Bloomington [Ind.] and thought that was the loudest place I’ve been in. [Kansas State’s] Bramlage Coliseum has been unbelievable. Oklahoma State has been unbelievable. But the thing about here is that anyone that comes in here says it’s that way.

“It’s consistently good regardless of who we are playing.”

Said play-by-play man Bob Davis, who has been calling games the past 30 years: “It still has the charm it had in the 1950s and ’60s. What makes it good is the crowd, the large student section. And it’s just gotten better and better over the last couple of decades.”

Retired broadcaster Max Falkenstien called games for 60 years from 1946-2006 and has seen every game inside Allen Fieldhouse. He still raves about it compared to the Jayhawks’ old gym at Hoch Auditorium, a building designed for concerts and plays.

“It says a lot that people who aren’t even KU fans make it a point to visit Allen Fieldhouse,” Falkenstien said. “This year, [Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers came just to see a game. It’s hard to explain. KU basketball is almost a religion in the state of Kansas.”

The fan passion was exemplified by filmmaker Josh Swade in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, There’s No Place Like Home.

Swade grew up as an avid KU fan, admiring Manning as a youngster, and took it upon himself to raise awareness and money to bring the original rules of basketball home to KU a few years ago.

The Naismith family put the rules up for auction in order to keep their charity afloat, and Swade convinced a wealthy KU donor, Austin resident David Booth, to purchase them in 2010.

“I’ve always been someone who really appreciates tradition,” Swade said. “In sports, people oftentimes get caught up in ‘What have you done for me lately?’ But I look at the body of Kansas basketball over 115 years and wow. You look at all the coaches, all the players, and it’s like the mecca of basketball to me.

“I don’t think our national title ledger does justice to how dominant this program has really been over the last 116 years.”

Is this the year?

As Swade said, the Jayhawks don’t have as many national championships as some might expect. For all of its success and history, KU has five titles — the latest coming in 2008 —and has been the victims of a seemingly endless line of upsets in the NCAA Tournament.

There was the Rhode Island loss in the second round of the 1998 when the Jayhawks were a one-seed and favorites to win the title behind Raef LaFrentz, Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn. Kansas suffered a similar fate a year earlier, falling just shy of a Final Four berth to eventual national champion Arizona.

It’s continued through this decade. The Jayhawks had consecutive first-round upsets in 2005 and 2006 to Bucknell and Bradley. They were a one-seed in the 2010 tournament and expected to make a run, but saw their season end with a second-round loss to Northern Iowa.

“It’s no secret that we’ve had our share of postseason disappointments and we should have at least twice as many titles, for all intents and purposes,” Swade said. “But that’s the nature of the tournament.”

The Jayhawks are in contention again this season and are in position to win their 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship. They have elite-level NBA talent on the roster, beginning with freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and depth throughout.

Wiggins has endured his share of ups and downs after coming in as someone who had been compared as the best recruit since LeBron James. Self, though, has no complaints about Wiggins’ season.

Wiggins played in the post the majority of his high school career, and has experienced growing pains in becoming more of a slashing guard.

“Many things are new to him and he just needs a little time to put it together,” Self said. “When he does, I don’t think there will be a better player in the country.”

Expectations have been tempered because Kansas is such a young team, which has shown during the regular season. The Jayhawks lost to San Diego State at home, and were whipped at Texas last month. But they have as much potential as anyone to get hot at the right time.

“I’m excited about our potential, excited about if we continue to get better, where we can go,” Self said in December. “We have a little less margin for error in some ways than maybe I thought we did going into the season. But I like our team. I like our talent level.

“The one thing is we’re not experienced, but we are playing a lot of guys that will make them beyond their years by the time postseason begins.”

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