State’s basketball card could be full at big dance

By Joe Stumpe | photography by Dale Stelz

This March might be the maddest ever.

As of mid-February, the possibility existed that all six Division 1 men]s and women]s basketball teams in Kansas  from KU, K-State and Wichita State  would participate in post- season play.

Of course, some of that could change by the time you read this. But let]s hope for the best as we glance both back and ahead at a remarkable season.

Wichita State men ride Stutz, other seniors to wins

As the Shocker men prepared for a couple of crucial games last month, Coach Gregg Marshall had plenty of reasons to be happy with his team. They were 20-4 at the time and tied with Creighton for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. In conference play they]d lost one on the road  to Drake, in overtime  and one at home, to Creighton. Marshall liked the way his players were scoring the ball, the way they were rebounding ball and the way his seniors were leading the way.

Still, you don]t achieve the kind of coaching success Marshall has enjoyed by standing pat and he had a couple of goals for the rest of the reason. The team needed to ramp up its rebounding edge even higher, to the level it had enjoyed earlier in the season, defend better and execute flawlessly on the offensive end, as Marshall put it.

So what happened the next two games? WSU did all of those things, blowing out Northern Iowa by 25 points at home and then whipping Creighton by 21 on the road.

Gosh, Coach, you should have said something earlier.

Actually, blowouts were nothing new to the Shockers this year. They repeatedly showed they]re capable of dominating an opponent and not just the Newmans and Emporia States of the basketball world. Don]t forget Dec. 4, when WSU trounced the University of Las Vegas by 19. Counting the games against Northern Iowa and Creighton, the Shockers beat 10 opponents by 20 points or more.

Much of the credit for the Shockers rise this year has been given to Garett Stutz, a 7-footer from Kansas City who was averaging 14 points and nearly 8 rebounds a game, twice what he]d done in previous seasons.

I don]t know what it is, Marshall said. We]ve all been waiting for this to happen.

Marshall said Stutz, who he describes as kind of a gentle giant, is starting to show a killer instinct. You can ride a guy like that and that]s what we]ve been doing.

But Stutz wasn’t much of a factor in the Creighton game, sitting out long stretches with foul trouble. Instead, power forward Carl Hall came off the bench to rebound and score down low, while senior point guard Joe Ragland poured in 24 points and senior forward Ben Smith added 22.

In other words, the Shockers have more than one weapon. In fact, their best all-around player may be senior guard Toure Murry, who ranks third in scoring, second in assists, third in rebounding, first in steals and often draws a tough defensive assignment.

The wins over Northern Iowa and Creighton put Wichita State all alone at the top of the Valley standings and allowed them to crack the top 25 national rankings for the first time since 2007. With an even higher power rating — 17th — the Shockers looked to have played their way into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, barring a complete collapse. It would be their first NCAA tournament appearance under Marshall, who arrived in 2007 and took the Shockers to the NIT title last year.

As for motivation going forward, it looked like the Shockers would continue to use the “we don’t get no respect” mantra. That could require some willful ignorance as respect started to arrive. “Wichita State,” ESPN commentator Hubert Davis said, “can beat anybody in the country.”

Play it again: KU men return to the NCAA for 23rd year

The KU Jayhawks barreling toward another NCAA tournament may seem like old news. After all, they’ve made the tournament 23 straight times — the longest current streak in the country. And they’ve won at least a share of the last seven Big 12 conference championships — not to mention that national championship in 2008.

So it’s no surprise that Kansas is back in the tournament. But it is unexpected that they once again have a real shot at the big prize after losing three players to last year’s NBA draft.

If they do make a run at the title, it will be a journey with some interesting twists and turns.

Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks’ senior point guard, will go down as one of the most-scrutinized players in the program’s storied history. A starter since his freshman year, Taylor might have been expected to mature and grow into a fan favorite, the way Sherron Collins did. Instead, a combination of off-court antics and on-court meltdowns have made Taylor the target of everything fans as well as the social and traditional media can throw at him.

When he’s good, he’s really good. You could cite his statistics in the team’s second win over Baylor, but what really mattered were two timely three-pointers and that NBA-worthy drive and dunk along the baseline. Until, that is, he missed the front end of two one-and-ones that could have iced the game.

With Taylor, you get the spectacular with the awful.

KU’s other marquee player, Thomas Robinson, has been more consistent, balling his way into contention for National Player of the Year honors. He cooled off somewhat after a spectacular mid-season spurt that had Dickie V and others singing his praises, but in part that was simply because of the emergence of a third key component of the Jayhawks — their suddenly dominant 7-footer, Jeff Withey.

In three games, Withey managed to establish himself into one of the most fearsome inside men in the country with career highs in buckets, rebounds and blocks.

KU has several other talented players. Travis Releford can run the floor, defend and shoot. Conner Teahan, when he’s on, is a deadly three-point shooter. Elijah Johnson has had his moments.

The truth is, going to the Big Dance never gets old for a basketball team or its fans. And when that team is the KU Jayhawks, the expectations for what they’ll do when they get there never fall below the Final Four.

An Insider’s Guide

As a St. Louis native, I love telling people how to have a good time in my hometown. Frankly, it’s not hard.

First of all: ditch those Missouri Valley Conference tournament games that don’t involve the men’s or women’s Shocker teams, and head out to see the city. You won’t be sorry.

I won’t claim any knowledge of St. Charles, where the women’s games are held, but it’s so close to St. Louis that it doesn’t matter.

My picks:

The Hill The city’s historic Italian neighborhood has lost none of its charm since the days when immigrants outnumbered the people who think it’s simply cool to live here. The food leans toward Italian- American — think red sauce and checkered tablecloths — though there are more adventurous offerings as well. Wherever you eat, stop by Rigazzi’s for a frosted fishbowl of cold beer and Milo’s for a game of bocce ball on the covered outdoor court. Off Interstate 44 at Shaw Avenue.

The Loop This stretch of restaurants, clubs and retail is one of the most happening spots in the city, especially on nights nice enough to take advantage of the sidewalk seating. Check out Blueberry Hill, where St. Louis naive Chuck Berry still plays an occasional set, the “walk of fame,” Pin-Up bowling and lounge and the historic Tivoli theater. Located along Delmar Boulevard.

Soulard The name means “drunkard” in French, which seems appropriate for a neighborhood with a high concentration of drinking spots (sitting in the shadow of the Anheuser-Busch brewery). In addition to imbibing, Soulard is a hot spot for blues and jazz bands. Off Interstate 55 at Lafayette.

Laclede’s Landing Located on the banks of the Mississippi near the Arch, Busch Stadium and other attractions, the Landing entertainment district is a great neighborhood to grab a beer, bite to eat or dance the night away.

Forrest Park One of the great city parks in this country, this 1,293-acre green plot features the St. Louis Zoo, three museums, tons of athletic facilities and miles of paths for walking or riding. It’s bounded by some of the most beautiful homes in St. Louis. The nearby Central West End boasts good food and drink.

Schafley’s Brewpub, 2100 Locust St. Now going into its 21st year, Schafley’s was one of the pioneers of the microwbrew movement in the Midwest. Now they rightly lay claim to the title of St. Louis’s largest locally-owned brewery (thanks to Anheuser-Busch’s sale to a European conglomerate). Great beer, pub food and entertainment upstairs.

K-State Wildcats Try to Find Groove

Every K-State fan wonders what’s on basketball coach Frank Martin’s mind. Or, perhaps, if he’s out of his mind. Martin’s fearsome scowl has been a fixture on the Wildcats bench since he took over in 2007. His teams have made the NCAA tournament three out of four years since then.

This year, it might take an impressive run in the Big 12 tournament to get there. The Cats have one big regular-season win — against Missouri — as well as victories over Texas, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State. But they also lost to Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas (twice), falling below .500 in conference games by last month. What Martin mostly offered up in explanation was: this conference is really good.

Which is true. But the Wildcats have also seemed outgunned at several positions, quite a change from when a big man such as Michael Beasley or a guard such as Jacob Pullen could carry the team to victory.

Not that there haven’t been bright spots. Rodney MacGruder has shown great all- around game, averaging 14 points and five rebounds an outing. Point guard Will Spradling and forward Jamar Samuels are the only other two Wildcats averaging in double figures scoring.

Samuels has shown he can compete with anyone, as when he scored 22 points in the second loss to Kansas. But he was expected to contribute those types of efforts more consistently after bulking up in the off-season.

As in past years, the Wildcats’ strengths are defense, where they’ve held opponents to .397 field goal percentage, and rebounding, corralling six more boards a game.

Heading into the stretch run, K-State was in sixth place in the Big 12, right where coaches predicted in their pre-season poll. So it can’t be argued that they’ve underperformed, especially considering their national power rating was in the mid 30s.

But neither that rating nor the Wildcats’ past tournament success — Martin has never lost in the first round and guided his team to the Elite Eight two years ago — was a guarantee that they’d be back.

KU and K-State Women’s Bubble May Burst

The KU and K-State women’s basketball squads were the epitome of NCAA tournament “bubble teams” — those with a possible shot at making the field — this year.

Both notched some nice wins, showed they belonged in the top half of the Big 12 conference and spent time in the nation’s top 25.

For the Jayhawks, junior forward Carolyn Davis lived up to expectations (she was a pre-season candidate for national player of the year), averaging 17.5 points while shooting a phenomenal 60 percent. But Davis went down with a knee injury in mid- February and will miss the rest of the season. Another junior, Angel Goodrich, set the Allen Fieldhouse record for assists in a game with 16, no aberration since she was third in the country in that category.

K-State junior guard Brittany Chambers led her team in scoring and rebounding, receiving help from seniors Tasha Dickey and Jalana Childs.

But inconsistent play or — as was clear when playing top teams — a talent deficit might destine KU and K-State for the WNIT instead. In that second-tier tournament, either could have been expected to make a serious run at the title — before, that is, Davis got hurt. Now it will probably be up to the Wildcats.

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