Bob Lutz

Lutz on the Loose: In a basketball-crazed state, this week is epic

Canada can have hockey. In Kansas, we'll take basketball.

The Kansas Jayhawks are No. 2 in the country; Kansas State is No. 5 and the two rivals hook up Wednesday night in Lawrence.

I can appreciate how passionate Canadians are about their national sport. But I think even they could learn something about passion by tuning in to Wednesday night's game and watching the craziness at Allen Fieldhouse.

I've been writing about Kansas' love affair with basketball all season long. The backdrop — KU and K-State being ranked for most of the season and Wichita State having one of its best seasons — has been perfect for my columns.

This is one of the best seasons ever for college basketball in Kansas, which can safely promote itself as America's No. 1 hoops state.

There are three ranked teams from Pennsylvania: Villanova (9), Pittsburgh (17) and Temple (20).

There are also three from Texas: Baylor (21), Texas A&M (23) and UTEP (24).

Ohio (Ohio State, 6; Xavier, 25), Tennessee (Vanderbilt, 13; UT, 16) and Indiana (Purdue, 7; Butler, 12) have two ranked teams apiece.

But two top five teams?

In case you're wondering _ admit it, the thought has crossed your mind _ two teams from the same state have played in the Final Four only seven times. It hasn't happened since Duke and North Carolina were in the 1991 Final Four. Duke beat Kansas in the championship game, as if you Jayhawks fans needed a reminder.

In 1977, Charlotte and North Carolina were in the Final Four in Atlanta; Marquette beat the Tar Heels in the championship game.

Louisville and Kentucky were in the 1975 Final Four in San Diego, where the Wildcats were beaten by UCLA for the title.

From 1960-62, Cincinnati and Ohio State played in three Final Fours. Cincy beat Ohio State in the finals in 1961 and 1962 while Ohio State knocked off California in 1960.

And in 1954, Penn State and La Salle played in the Final Four at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium; La Salle beat Bradley for the championship.

* Speaking of hockey, I was on top of the USA-Canada gold medal game Sunday afternoon. Watched it from start to finish.

Planned my day around it, even. And it was one of the most exciting sports events I've seen in a while _ at or least since the USA's 5-3 win over Canada in the qualifying round.

Unfortunately, the appeal of the Olympics _ and of players representing their countries _ will not carry over into a love affair for the National Hockey League, which averages 278,000 viewers per game, most of which are shown on the Versus Network.

It's not hockey we love in America. It's nationalism. It's getting on a bandwagon. It's having a chance to wave the flag and look down our noses at our friendly neighbors to the North.

If it was Canada vs. Finland for the gold, does anyone in America care?

If it's USA-Slovakia, are we all glued to our sets?

This was one of those rare times when everything fell together for the Olympic hockey tournament. The USA's early upset and underdog nature heightened curiosity, while Canada's recovery _ and especially its easy win over Russia _ made for a can't-miss rematch.

The talk shouldn't be about what Olympic hockey can do for the NHL. It should be about what the Olympics can do for youth hockey in the United States.

Not to sound jingoistic, but the only way hockey is going to become a big deal in the United States, outside of the pockets where it is supported, is for more kids to prod mommy and daddy for a hockey stick.

It's an expensive sport to play, but I have to believe a lot of kids across America were enamored by the sport during the past two weeks, and especially by the two U.S.-Canada showdowns.

Hockey will never equal the popularity of football, basketball and baseball in this country. But it has a chance to grow if parents listen to their children and get them on the ice at an early age.

* Golf is limping along without Tiger Woods. NASCAR still has the rest of winter, spring, summer and fall to get through. There are seven weeks remaining in the NBA's regular season. Baseball spring training games start this week, but it's a month until the start of the regular season.

March is all about college hoops and the postseason starts Thursday with the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis.

Wichita State's chances?

Not bad.

I would think regular-season champion Northern Iowa is something like a 60 percent bet to win in St. Louis. Illinois State and Wichita State are next up.

Could a darkhorse slip through?

Maybe, but I don't get that sense. Bradley, Creighton, Drake, Missouri State, Indiana State, Southern Illinois and Evansville are flawed teams that don't have enough to get on a three- or four-day run.

WSU will play the Missouri State-Evansville winner in the quarterfinals Friday, and had tough battles with both teams during four regular-season games.

Still, if I were the Shockers I would want to avoid Missouri State, simply because the Bears have one of the Valley's best players in Kyle Weems.

Should be interesting.

I think the keys for the Shockers are J.T. Durley, who is finally playing with purpose and consistently, and Toure Murry, who has not been himself down the stretch.

* It amazes me how the NFL Draft gets so much run.

The NFL has done a magnificent job of convincing the media that everybody in America is on pins and needles about who the Tennessee Titans are going to take with the 16th pick in the draft, to be held over three days this year because we just can't get enough analysis in one or two.

I like the NFL. I enjoy the games and even had some fun in a fantasy league last season.

But aren't we a little too gaga for this league? I know, I'm crazy.

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