When ranking the bluebloods of college basketball, the discussion cannot begin until the universities of Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina are recognized.
The hardwood on which those teams play is considered sacred ground in the college basketball world. Rupp Arena in Lexington, the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill and Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence are all basketball meccas.
But how often is it pointed out what these historic venues have in common?
“They all play in arenas named after guys from Kansas,” said Ted Hayes, the president of the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. “I think people either take it for granted or they don’t know. The tradition of basketball in Kansas is a lot stronger than I think your average person realizes. Sometimes we’re so close to the forest, we can’t see the trees.”
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The past two seasons in college basketball have brought success in Kansas to the forefront. The state’s three Division I colleges — KU, Kansas State and Wichita State — won at least 23 games both seasons and combined for a .801 winning percentage.
The trend continues this season. Bill Self has mastered the art of reloading at KU, Frank Martin has the Wildcats on the brink of another tournament appearance, and Gregg Marshall has WSU looking at a Valley championship.
Just for good measure, the women’s basketball programs are at an all-time high. KU and K-State are in the top half of the Big 12 standings, and WSU is in the race for a Valley title.
“When you stop and think, a state with the population that of Kansas, to have three schools like what we have, I don’t think there’s another state in the nation that can match it,” Hayes said. “To have three teams year-in and year-out like that, you would have to go to Indiana or North Carolina to find something like that. This is a basketball-crazy state.”
This isn’t the first stretch where all three schools have enjoyed success in basketball at the same time. The three schools have combined for 73 NCAA Tournament appearances, 48 Sweet 16s and 18 Final Fours. And KU owns three national championships.
But it’s been a long time since all three were this good at the same time.
KU, K-State and WSU are all in position to secure a berth to the NCAA tournament this season. If all three succeed, it would be the first time since 1988 that all of Kansas was represented in the field. Danny Manning led KU to the national championship that year, bouncing Kansas State in the regional finals.
The state’s basketball tradition stretches far beyond its teams. Kansas has more inductees in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame than any other state.
Dean Smith is from Emporia and Adolph Rupp hailed from Halstead, while Forrest “Phog” Allen spent the majority of his life in Kansas. Eddie Sutton grew up in Bucklin; Gene Keady in Larned.
Naismith, Larry Brown, Tex Winter, Jack Hartman and Jack Gardner all coached in Kansas.
John McLendon, the first black coach in professional sports, was from Hiawatha. Gene Johnson, from Hartford, coached the United States to its first Olympic gold in 1936. Billie Jean Moore coached the first U.S. women’s basketball team in the 1976 Olympics and grew up in Westmoreland.
Lynette Woodard, Jackie Stiles, Antoine Carr and Ernie Barrett all grew up in Kansas. Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning, Xavier McDaniel and Jack Parr all played here.
“It’s been that way for as long as I can remember,” Hayes said. “There’s just not another state that can stack up to all of that.”