There is one, and only one, acceptable means of looking down on the heartland and its denizens, and that is from an altitude of 35,000 feet. Behold your flyover states: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, conspicuous from your window seat as a rectangular grid, a quilt of fields where earnest folk plant corn and soybeans and - everyone's favorite - sorghum.
Rectangles upon rectangles. This time of year, the grid lies fallow, and presumably beneath a blanket of snow. Here, now, the fertile parallelograms are found not framed by state roads but rather indoors. They are basketball courts, 94-foot-by-50-foot rectangles, framed by thousands upon thousands of kinetic fans.
This winter, more so than any in memory, the courts have yielded a bountiful harvest. A veritable cornutopia of Top 25 college basketball teams and future NBA starters. No one is looking down on them."You're talking the superlatives now," says Gregg Marshall, the coach at Wichita State, which is the sole remaining undefeated team (28-0) in the nation.
Yes, we are. Within a sparsely populated 500-mile radius of Lebanon, Kan., the geographic center of the continental United States, you will find six of the country's top-ranked teams, as well as the nation's undisputed top player. Besides No. 3 Wichita State, you have No. 8 Kansas, No. 10 St. Louis, No. 12 Creighton, No. 15 Iowa and No. 17 Iowa State. And in Omaha, worthy of a blue ribbon at the state fair, is Creighton's six-foot-eight senior Doug McDermott, who is about to become the college basketball's first three-time all-American in nearly 30 years.
Our driving tour begins in Wichita, home of the Shockers, who have become something of a misnomer over the past 12 months. Last spring Marshall, then in his sixth season, led the team to its first Final Four berth since 1965. Wichita State only lost by four in the national semi-finals to eventual national champion Louisville.
With three starters, including leading scorers Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early, returning, Wichita State's success this season may not be shocking (the school's nickname refers to the harvesting of wheat). Still, 38 years have passed since a school, Indiana, went undefeated and won the national championship.
Locals will remind you that until this season, Wichita State and Creighton were both members of the Missouri Valley Conference, but the Bluejays have since emigrated to the Big East. The implication being that if Marshall's squad had to face Creighton and Dougie McBuckets, as he is known, twice per season, Wichita State's record might not be unsullied. "It's funny how [Creighton] goes to the Big East, considered an elite league, and they're dominating the league," says Marshall, a South Carolina native who has cultivated an image on the prairie as having a chip on his shoulder. "With them gone, we are having to justify our being undefeated. I think that's an interesting quandary for folks."
There is no quandary, however, for folks voting for either the Naismith or Wooden Awards, given annually to the nation's top collegiate player. McDermott, who leads the country in scoring at 25.8 points per game and recently passed Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list, is a layup. The Ames, Iowa, native is on the verge of becoming the third player in college basketball history to finish his career with more than 3,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, a feat even more incredible when you consider his stature four years ago.
"Doug was a late bloomer," says Vance Downs, his high school coach, where the school motto is Ames High Aims High. Although McDermott, along with current Golden State Warrior forward Harrison Barnes, led Ames High to a pair of 4A state championships, the local university, Iowa State, did not tender him a scholarship offer. That is an even more astounding bit of information when you consider that the Cyclones' coach at the time was Greg McDermott, Doug's own father.
"Doug wasn't considered good enough to play in a top-tier conference like the Big 12, no," laughs Downs. "So his dad didn't recruit him."
Greg McDermott left Iowa State for Creighton after his son's senior season in Ames and Doug joined him there. Four years later, in what has turned out to be a more fruitful father-son trek to Omaha than the one undertaken in the Oscar-nominated film Nebraska, McDermott will have outscored collegiate legends such as Bird, Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor. "I know how silly it sounds now," says Downs. "I was putting all the uniforms in storage after we won the state title Doug's senior year. He poked his head in the door, and I told him, 'If you work hard enough, you can make a living in this game.' And Doug just looked at me and said, 'If I work hard enough.' "
Hard work and packed gyms are defining traits in the rural Midwest. Historic Allen Fieldhouse (established 1955) in Lawrence, Kan., where the Jayhawks boast not one but two freshmen - Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins - considered top five picks in next June's NBA draft, has sold out its 16,300 seats for 212 consecutive games. Creighton is averaging 17,700 fans (more than four times its undergraduate enrollment) at the off-campus CenturyLink Center. And Iowa State's Hilton Coliseum averages more than 13,000 fans per game which, when you consider Ames' size, accounts for roughly 26 percent of the population. No wonder that the Cyclones coach, Fred Hoiberg, who, like McDermott, played at Ames High (and later Iowa State and in the NBA), is fondly known as "the Mayor."
"People in the Midwest love basketball," says Marshall, 51. "It gets very cold and there's snow and ice. So what's a better thing to do on a weeknight than find a gym that's heated up with [10,000] to 15,000 people and cheer for your home team?"
What indeed, especially when your home team is winning? From a winning percentage metric, Wichita State, Creighton, Iowa State, Iowa and St. Louis (the Billikens are 24-2) are all having their best seasons in more than a decade. Kansas has enjoyed better seasons from a win-loss perspective, but then Kansas is Kansas: the Jayhawks have played for the NCAA championship twice in the past six seasons.
"I don't think this is necessarily a one-year deal," says Marshall. "I've always been impressed with the basketball here in the Midwest.'
Maybe so, but this season, in a land not known for its dramatic topography, college basketball soared to new heights. You reap what you sow.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Doug McDermott would become the third player in college basketball history to finish his career with more than 3,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.