KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Nothing about the way Kansas center Cole Aldrich, Missouri guard J.T. Tiller or Texas A&M guard Donald Sloan operate is reminiscent of basketball's earliest days of set shots and rigidly patterned play.
Yet players preparing for this week's Big 12 tournament at the Sprint Center and throughout college basketball might be surprised to know that they're merely running stuff that was created by the original architects a century or so ago.
And those blueprints took shape in the farm communities and railroad stops of Kansas and Missouri.
Basketball wasn't born in America's Heartland, but the game took its heartbeat from the coaching pioneers who molded the sport and spread its influence through the generations.
The game we know today is merely a multilayered extension of what was being taught in horse-and-buggy days. Or, given the setting, pitchfork and railroad-spike-pounding days.
Aldrich and Tiller may not know it, but when their coaches talk about help-side defenses, that concept was passed down to Bill Self and Mike Anderson from their influences.
Self was raised in the Oklahoma State system. Anderson studied under Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, who played for Don Haskins, who revered his legendary, defensive-minded college coach -- the same one who connects to Self through his former coaches -- Henry Iba from Easton, Mo.
When Sloan and the Aggies run motion offense and set screens away from the ball, they're following the instructions of a coach, Mark Turgeon, who played for Larry Brown, who played for Dean Smith, who played for Phog Allen, a Jamesport, Mo., native who grew up in Independence.
The scoring mentality of Oklahoma State star guard James Anderson must remind his coach, Travis Ford, of his playing days at Kentucky. Those Wildcats under Rick Pitino raced up and down the floor, restoring an offensive mind-set reminiscent of the college game's great original offensive mind, Kentucky's Baron of the Bluegrass: Adolph Rupp of Halstead, Kan.
As for John McLendon, born in Hiawatha, Kan., and raised in Kansas City, Kan., he might have been the greatest pioneer of them all. As a Kansas student, he absorbed the basketball teachings of Allen and the moral strength of Kansas professor and basketball inventor James Naismith, brought them into a segregated world and connected races on the basketball court.
McLendon was the Jackie Robinson of basketball coaches and, like his fellow pioneers, spread his influence from the points of origin, Kansas and Missouri.
What made basketball soil as fertile as the rich farm land in America's Heartland?
There seems to have been a mixture of circumstances that created ideal conditions. Some are directly related to the game itself. After all, basketball's inventor spent the final 40 years of his life working at Kansas.
Still, as great coaching minds were forming here, Naismith's creation was being played elsewhere, having been organized in New England, along the East Coast and Great Lakes. Basketball would soon spread to the West Coast, and Indiana was developing its own rich tradition of coaching and Hoosier Hysteria.
But no region was able to build on a legendary coaching foundation like the one that developed in a circle around Kansas City, a bit to the east and far into the west. And the nature of that area as the 19th century faded away -- about the time Naismith arrived at Kansas in 1898 -- is a good place to start.
"Towns were small, and the game was simple," said Steven Farley, author of three books about basketball in Kansas. "It didn't take much equipment. It took a boy, a ball and a goal."
For Rupp, one of six children in a German-speaking Mennonite household, that ball was a stitched feed sack filled with rags and straw. It couldn't be dribbled, so the Rupps constantly passed and shot into a barrel ring nailed to a tool shed.
The fast-paced Kentucky teams that won four national championships under Rupp and became the college game's first national power could have their origins on the Rupp farm around 1910 in a ball that couldn't bounce.
Later, Rupp's techniques were honed at Kansas, under Allen.
A few years later, basketball's defensive direction took root outside of St. Joseph in the back of a flatbed pickup truck covered by a tarp and -- what else? -- straw.
Easton High wasn't very good, and Iba, its best player, could live with that. But a game against Stewartsville, changed everything. Easton lost 64-14, a remarkable score for 1920, and an inconsolable Iba was consumed by the outcome on the bumpy ride home.
"There had to be a better way to play the game," he said in a postretirement interview. "I made a vow that that would never happen to me again. My team would never give up that many points."
A college career that took Iba first to the school known today as Northwest Missouri State, then to Colorado and most famously to Oklahoma A&M (now State) was constructed on defense and paved the way for two national championships and two gold medals by the Iba-coached United States Olympic teams.
Allen set the stage for Rupp, Iba and others by acting on a radical notion -- to coach. The story goes that Allen and Naismith disagreed on whether the game should be coached, because the inventor took a less competitive approach to basketball.
"The idea of coaching basketball starts with Allen," said Matt Zeysing, curator at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "It was important to him to be a coach."
So important that Allen ended his playing career and enrollment at Kansas after one year in 1906 to become a coach, first at Baker, then at Kansas and Haskell over a three-year stretch. Allen was the original one-and-done, and a profession gained strength because of it.
The endorsement came from Naismith, who once inscribed a sketch to Allen: "With kindest regards to F.C. Allen, the father of basketball coaching from the father of the game."
McLendon received approval of another sort from Naismith, who recommended his former Kansas student for his first college coaching job at North Carolina College.
From there, an amazing career blossomed. Not just championships and victories. There were plenty of those, including three straight for Tennessee State at the NAIA Tournament and 523 career triumphs. But McLendon broke barriers, at Kansas and in the coaching ranks.
McLendon became the first black student at Kansas to get a physical education degree. He arranged the South's first interracial game, created the first national tournament among historically black colleges, became the first black coach of a professional team and of a predominantly white college.
His teams, like Rupp's at Kentucky, ran like the wind. McLendon said his inspiration had come from Naismith, who told him the game was intended for players to exercise, to run.
"It came from Kansas," McLendon said in a 1994 interview, five years before he died.
Basketball in the early years of the 20th century became a central activity in Midwestern towns. Folks had a reason to gather in the cold, dark winter evenings.
"Small towns were mostly based in agriculture, and in the winters there wasn't much to do," said Brian Stucky of Goessel, Kan., and author of "Hallowed Hardwood: Vintage Basketball Gyms of Kansas."
"To play indoors at that time of the year, it got the whole community involved."
Plus, there was a numbers game. Football was popular, but in towns where high school graduating classes numbered in single digits, not every school could field a team.
Varney came across a Kansas school with the entire enrollment of 12 -- "11 boys and one girl. And it had a basketball team."
Indiana's small-town basketball heritage was exquisitely captured in the movie "Hoosiers."
"But the movie could have been about any number of small Kansas towns, too," said Rich Hughes of Overland Park, who is working on a basketball history project titled Kansas: The State of Basketball. "There's not quite a Hoosiers story, except for the intensity."
Often coaches became pillars of the community, and in a region without major-league sports until after World War II, coaches, especially college coaches, became mythical figures.
The small farm near Bucklin, Kan., where Eddie Sutton grew up, didn't have indoor plumbing, but it had a radio, and the airwaves in the 1950s could take him across the Heartland.
"You had Phog Allen at Kansas, Tex Winter at Kansas State, Ralph Miller at Wichita State and Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M," Sutton said. "I'd listen to those games and pretend I was playing at those schools."
Sutton, who coached at five schools, including his alma mater, Oklahoma State, became part of a succeeding generation of coaching greats from the Heartland.
In the last few years, the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame has welcomed Mizzou legend Norm Stewart from Shelbyville, Mo., and Gene Bartow -- he of Memphis/UCLA/Alabama-Birmingham fame -- from Browning, Mo.
Dean Smith grew up in Emporia, Kan., and played high school ball in Topeka. At Kansas, he was a member of the 1952 national champions. His longtime North Carolina assistant, Bill Guthridge, grew up in Parsons, Kan., and attended Kansas State.
Miller, from Chanute, Kan., finished his Hall of Fame career at Oregon State.
When he started his coaching career at Beloit High School in Kansas, Gene Keady, born in Larned, Kan., would pack his team on a school bus for the long trip to Kansas City for the Big Seven Holiday Tournament.
"For us in the small towns," said Keady, the longtime Purdue coach, "that was such a big deal."
Turgeon from Topeka, Georgia's Mark Fox from Garden City, Kan., and UNLV's Lon Kruger from Silver Lake, Kan., who at K-State played for Jack Hartman, who played for Iba, prominently carry on the area's coaching heritage.
Turgeon, like Sutton, dreamed of playing college basketball. In his case, at Kansas, the school of Allen and Naismith.
"I didn't know if I was good enough," Turgeon said. "But growing up, I always wanted to be a part of it."
Now, he teaches it, and hoops in the Heartland is being passed along to the next generation.