It seemed like Wichita State had a better chance to make the Final Four last season. The Shockers were seeded fifth, compared to a No. 9 seed this season playing with four new starters.
Last season, the Shockers were bounced in their first NCAA Tournament game. This year, they’ve danced all the way to the final weekend.
It happens in college basketball. Teams that appear built for the long tournament haul get a bad draw, a bad break or play their worst game. And teams without a target on their back play loosely across the bracket.
The contrast can happen in a year’s time, and it has happened twice to Wichita State.
The first time, some five decades ago, was even more head-shaking, and a player on those teams who lives in Kansas City was in the middle of some wild seasons in the 1960s when the Shockers should have been in the Final Four, but weren’t. Then they became a Final Four team when nobody believed they could.
“One year I thought we should have won it all,” said John Criss, a guard and three-year letterwinner from 1963-66. “Then the next year, as I look back on it, we shouldn’t have much of a chance.”
But those lesser Shockers of 1965 gave themselves a chance and became the program’s original Final Four team because they were forced to play together, without their best players, from mid-season on.
“The team that played in the Final Four, nobody could dunk the ball,” said Criss, who works at Belger Cartage, a Kansas City crane company. “There wasn’t a lot of great physical ability, we weren’t very quick, but that last semester we were playing together as well as anybody.”
They needed to be. The 1964-65 season began with great promise and a sense of dread for the Shockers, who knew their best player, Dave Stallworth, would be with them for only 16 games. His eligibility expired at semester. Stallworth had started his college career at mid-year, and his expiration date was firm.
What the Shockers didn’t know before the season is the other star player, 6-foot-10 Nate Bowman, would also be lost at mid-year, because of grades.
On Dec. 14, Wichita State became the nation’s top-ranked team for the only time in its history. A couple of weeks later, they lost their top guns, both of whom would play for the 1970 NBA champion New York Knicks.
What’s more, the 1965 Shockers were breaking in a new coach. Gary Thompson, who had served on the Shockers staff and was elevated to head coach when Ralph Miller took the Iowa job.
But a strange thing happened through the January and February portion of the 1965 schedule. The Shockers didn’t fall apart. They won eight of 12 games with the reduced roster, enough to win the Missouri Valley Conference by two games over Bradley and Saint Louis.
“They got better every week,” said Roger McDowell, of Overland Park, a Wichita State freshman that year who scrimmaged against the varsity. That freshman team also included Warren Armstrong of Central High, considered one of Kansas City’s greatest high school stars. He went on to become a college great.
The NCAA regional was in Manhattan, Kan., and Wichita State defeated SMU and Oklahoma State to reach its first Final Four.
“We didn’t wait for an All-America to carry the load for us,” Criss said. “We had to play together to win.”
The Final Four in Portland, Ore., turned out to be a forgettable weekend. The Shockers’ lack of depth caught up with them in the national semifinals as UCLA won easily 108-89.
A third-place game was played then, and Princeton also won in a walkover with Bill Bradley scoring 58, which remains a record for a Final Four game.
Still, reaching the Final Four under those conditions stands as a remarkable achievement, just as missing the Final Four was in the previous year.
The 1963-64 Wichita State team, with Stallworth averaging 26.5 points, beat Drake in a playoff for the Missouri Valley championship and played host to the Midwest Regional.
But after defeating Creighton, the Shockers ran into a hot Kansas State team, led by Willie Murrell, and lost 94-86.
“That was the team,” Criss said. “We had the regional in our gym and the Final Four was in Kansas City. And we lost on our home court. It shouldn’t have happened.”
Then again, the Shockers’ 1965 success probably shouldn’t have happened.