by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

“Kansas, she said, is the name of the star . . . ” The Munchkins

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — OK, Dorothy. You said it. There’s no place like home. Only the NCAA tournament isn’t supposed to be anyone’s backyard barbecue. Neutral courts, remember? Ha. You wouldn’t have known it here Sunday. This place, this Kemper Arena — only 37 miles from the Kansas campus — was crimson and blue pandemonium, 99.6 percent Jayhawk. It was as if Kansas did the catering, the invitations, the benedictions, the music, the cheering, the noise — oh, yes, the noise — and of course, the result. Jayhawks win, 75-67.

It’s their party, and N.C. State can cry if it wants to. “We go all this way in post-season play and all of a sudden, we’re playing an away game,” said Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano. “There’s 17,000 people screaming for the home team. It hurt our kids. I’m not saying it was the whole game. But I wish we were playing on neutral courts.”

Well, you can always wish. It worked for the tin man and the scarecrow. But there was nothing in the wizard’s black bag for Chris Washburn and the N.C. State company Sunday. And so here is how it is:

The Wolfpack is gone, out of it, and so are Valvano and his David Brenner imitation, which is pretty good, especially the nose.

And Kansas, mighty Kansas — get ready to bark, Toto — is going to the Final Four for the first time in 12 years. OK, dog. Ruff. Noise bothered the Wolfpack

Of course, it’s no big surprise. Kansas was ranked No. 2 in the country. The Jayhawks were supposed to win it all in this regional. And for any Michigan State fans still smarting from Friday’s overtime defeat, there may even be a morsel of satisfaction here: After all, the Jayhawks had an easier time against the Wolfpack than against the Spartans.

Credit the noise — which seemed to rattle a very young Wolfpack team in the final minutes — but credit mostly Danny Manning and Greg Dreiling, Mr. Digs and Mr. Bigs.

They were like two legs of a relay team in the second half Sunday. Manning scored 10 straight Kansas points to turn a 57-52 Kansas deficit into a 62-58 lead. He then passed the baton to Dreiling, who scored the Jayhawks’ next nine to make it 71-63, and ensure us that the state which boasts Topeka, Wichita, and the world’s largest ground squirrel — you can look this up if you want to
— would be represented in the Big One of college basketball.

Manning, the 6-foot-11 sophomore, hit a jumper, a lay-up, a follow shot, a baseline jumper and another follow shot in the best five minutes by anyone here this weekend. And Dreiling, 7- feet-1, followed with his version of “I Gotta Be Me” — slow, awkward, but very tall.

Kansas hasn’t gone farther than a subregional in the last four years. Which may be why the Jayhawk faithful was so deafening Sunday, thundering their feet against the concrete floor and screaming as if this year’s wheat crop depended on it.

Dominating? I heard about 27 Wolfpack fans — total. They were allowed to cheer during commercial breaks. A home away from home

The NCAA is supposed to avoid such lopsidedness. It’s hard enough to win in this Russian roulette tournament without the house coming down on you. But there are so many teams and just so many arenas. “We were the No. 1 seed in the Midwest,” said KU coach Larry Brown. “Where else were they going to send us?”

The powers that be don’t consider Kemper Arena a home court for the Jayhawks — because it’s at least a rush-hour drive away — but KU played five games here this season before this tournament. Won all of them, too.

What are you gonna do? “There were 17,000 people chanting ‘Rock Chalk Jayhawks!’ ” said Valvano. “I don’t know what the hell that means.”

Neither does anyone else, although Teddy Roosevelt once called it “the greatest college chant I’ve ever heard.” And Teddy knew his hoops.

But OK. Could be worse. These Kansas fans, as college fans go, are loud, but not rude. Actually, I don’t think I’ve seen so much clean-cut since our last Up With People concert.

And now Kansas goes to Dallas this weekend, to play against Duke, then perhaps either Louisville or Louisiana State — the other lucky members of college basketball’s most exclusive quartet.

Does Kansas have a chance? Well, I figure there are two ways they could win it. Manning, Dreiling, and Calvin Thompson could play out of their heads. That’s one way.

Or the Jayhawks could get some ruby slippers, click their heels together three times, and say . . .


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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