Sunflower State set for St. Louis takeover

Kansas, Wichita State and K-State fans will descend on St. Louis for an NCAA subregional this weekend.

Denny Medley-Scott Kane-Scott Sewell

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First, they did the Missouri Valley Conference a solid, sending the entire state of Kansas and Big Blue Nation, better known as the Kentucky faithful, to St. Louis, where the MVC is running the second/third-round site. The conversations at the concession lines alone at Scottrade Center — Jayhawk, Shocker and Wildcat fans, sharing one building? — should be priceless enough. And the tickets were probably gone 45 seconds ago.

But then the NCAA Tournament selection committee went and dropped a bag of gerbil dung on Valley commissioner Doug Elgin’s front porch, lit it on fire and ran away giggling.

Because after granting MVC champ and 34-0 Wichita State a No. 1 seed in the Midwest, it set the rest of the region up like a Japanese television game show.

Win Friday? Congrats. You’ve probably got Kentucky.

Win Sunday? Congrats. You’ve probably got Louisville.

Win the regional semi? Congrats. You’ve probably got Michigan. Or Duke.

If the Indiana Pacers were available, the committee probably would’ve stuck them in the Midwest Region, too. As a 6 seed.

THREE NCAA TOURNEY THOUGHTS, NOW THAT WE’VE SLEPT ON IT

:03  … Does the Kansas Turnpike Authority have a tollbooth in Columbia, Mo.?

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Welcome to St. Louis, which, for one weekend, will effectively replace Kansas City as the last big, Eastern checkpoint of the Sunflower State. Kansas hasn’t played Wichita State since 1993; K-State hasn’t played the Shockers since 2003. A lot has changed for Baby Brother over the last 15-20 years: Wichita is a 1 seed, KU a 2, the Wildcats a 9. If the latter can get past gifted but enigmatic Kentucky, it’ll meet the Shockers on Sunday at Scottrade Center.

Either way, the Gateway City gets something rare: One town, one arena and three Sunflower State fan bases that rarely share the same space, let alone the same zip code.

Kansas faithful barely acknowledge that the K-State program exists, let alone a Shockers program that has been — and few Jayhawk fans would admit this — the state’s best team since last March.  (Which is another reason KU coach Bill Self has no interest in renewing the series, if we’re being frank. That, and he doesn’t want to see the T-shirt if the Shockers would ever knock off the Jayhawks.) A loss at top-10 Florida means less pain, politically, than a setback to top-10 Wichita, whether that game gets played in Lawrence, Kansas City, Larned, or anywhere else.

And even if we don’t actually get a Wichita-vs.-K-State tilt, the weekend is still a win. Because now all those fans will be milling about downtown St. Louis, fighting for real estate at Mike Shannon’s, crowding the parking lot at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, and probably groaning at how annoying all those Kentucky fans are. Enjoy it, kids. If Self has his way, this might be as close as the Jayhawks get to the Shockers — and rabid Wichita fans — for a long time.

:02 … The Big 12 was the deepest league in the country, but …

… don’t be surprised if there aren’t more than two teams from the conference in the Sweet 16. Actually, don’t be surprised if there’s only one team — and that team is Iowa State.

Oklahoma State is a trendy pick, and the Cowboys are crazy gifted in the backcourt, and the pros and cons of Marcus Smart have been well documented. But the Cowboys are also smallish and looked really tired, mentally, in a Big 12 tourney loss to a Joel Embiid-less Kansas team in Kansas City this past week. Texas is gifted but young; K-State is somewhat less gifted and somewhat less young, but has overachieved all year and remains a complete enigma outside the Octagon of Doom. Oklahoma is sneaky good, but not sneaky enough or good enough to take out San Diego State on a neutral court, in all likelihood.

Baylor has the height and muscle to win two games in a weekend. And a tradition of brain-cramping to flame out against a Cinderella Nebraska team that would love a rematch with nearby rival Creighton in the third round. The Cyclones tick a lot of the right boxes — strong guards, loads of shooters, a funky system, a pain to prepare for, tough defensively — but the way they rely on the 3-pointer also makes them a bit of a Bracketville schizophrenic. Common sense says Iowa State has a great shot at the Elite Eight, but when has common sense ever universally applied to the Big Dance?


:01 … Kansas actually has a cleaner path to the Elite Eight than Wichita State — if Joel Embiid comes back.

Assuming Self’s wounded Jayhawks don’t somehow fall (and they shouldn’t) to 15-seeded Eastern Kentucky in St. Louis, there’s a chance for a KU-New Mexico sequel on Sunday; the Jayhawks beat the Lobos on a neutral court once already, 80-63, on Dec. 14 in Kansas City.

Of course, that was with a healthy Embiid, who went for 18 points, six rebounds, three steals and four blocks at Sprint Center. The 7-foot freshman wiggled and spun and dream-shook and generally abused the Lobos on the blocks, repeatedly. With Big 22 on the floor, New Mexico’s 7-foot center Alex Kirk and 6-9 power forward Cameron Bairstow appeared a step slow. Without JoJo, it’s more of a fair fight.

But if KU can survive, here’s what’s waiting in Memphis: The winner will likely see mercurial Syracuse or (maybe) an overrated Ohio State team; both are somewhat flawed and eminently beatable.

Of course, you can’t say the same thing about top-seeded Florida, which should be waiting in the wings for the regional final, Bracketville’s biggest problem. Then again, given everything else the Jayhawks have had to deal with this month, it would be a hell of a nice problem to have.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.