Wichita State’s amazing run in the NCAA Tournament will continue to the Final Four with Saturday’s 70-66 victory over Ohio State in the West Regional final.
The Shockers became the first No. 9 seed to reach the final weekend since 1979, which was also the last year the Missouri Valley Conference got a team to the Final Four — Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.
But this march to the Final Four is no more improbable than Wichita State’s first, in 1965, when the Shockers lost their two best players at midseason.
That’s right. Wichita State carried on after the semester break without two future first-round NBA Draft picks — one of which was perhaps the greatest player in team history — and still logged the program’s greatest achievement until this year.
On Dec. 14, 1964, led by Dave Stallworth and Nate Bowman, Wichita State soared to the first No. 1 ranking in program history.
But Stallworth, a 6-foot-7 forward and scoring machine, had to leave the team because his eligibility expired. He had started his varsity career three seasons earlier at mid-year, and there was no skirting the rule. The Shockers knew they would have him for only a semester as a senior. The same thing happened a few years later to Kansas guard Jo Jo White.
Stallworth, a consensus All-American in 1964 and second-team selection in 1965, spent eight seasons in the NBA. Bowman, a 6-foot-10 forward who was academically ineligible for the spring semester, spent six seasons in pro ball, five in the NBA. He and Stallworth were members of the New York Knicks’ 1970 NBA title team.
Even without their stars, the Shockers won the Missouri Valley title by two games, then defeated SMU and Henry Iba’s Oklahoma State Big Eight championship team to reach the Final Four in Portland, Ore.
There, they were no match for Gail Goodrich and UCLA in the national semifinals, and lost 108-89. There was a third-place game then, and the Shockers got hammered by Princeton 118-82 as Bill Bradley, the future NBA star (another member of the Knicks title team — and U.S. senator, scored 58.
The team was coached by Gary Thompson, a Shockers assistant who had just succeeded Ralph Miller. Miller had left for Iowa and would later become Oregon State’s greatest coach.
Unlikely as this year’s run has been for Wichita State, the 1965 Shockers’ journey was just as improbable.