As we head into March Madness, there's always the casual wandering of the mind back to past post-season trips. Of course for us those trips always end the same way Kyle Wheliston's seasons ended over at the Mid-Majority, but just as he had a couple of glorious seasons to reflect on, we've had a few ourselves. I decided to go through and rank our top fifteen post-season runs, so we can reminisce. (Or, in some cases, learn... since we weren't even alive yet.) You may quibble with my rankings (especially #14), and my methodology may become a little transparent (other than #14), but hey... feel free to argue as we move along. I will drop a spoiler and mention that I am pretty sure the word "Wisconsin" will not appear in this series after this sentence.
Today, we start with number fifteen: 1979-80.
The Wildcats had swept the regular season and conference titles in 1977, but bowed out in a disappointing one-point second-round loss to eventual champion Marquette. The intervening two years were disappointments: a combined record of 34-23 and fourth- and second-place finishes, the latter with a lackluster 8-6 record. They entered the 1979-80 season with optimism, however, with junior Rolando Blackman and sophomore Ed Nealy -- the previous year's Big Eight Newcomer of the Year -- as notable bright spots.
The team reeled off eight straight wins to open the season before stumbling against host Minnesota at the Gophers' holiday tournament. (Oddly enough, the previous season had seen the final edition of the Big Eight Holiday Tournament, forcing the Cats to look for alternate holiday plans.) They rebounded, however, knocking off #19 Arkansas in Minneapolis before returning home and dispatching Long Beach State. Three days later, they suffered their second non-conference loss of the season when they traveled to #15 Louisville and lost by a dozen. That wrapped the non-conference portion of the schedule, and they began Big Eight play sitting on a 10-2 mark.
Things got off to a great start, despite a home loss to Oklahoma in the second game of conference play. A two-overtime win over the Huskers at Ahearn catapulted the Wildcats into the top 20 with a televised January 30 game at #14 Missouri looming; K-State stood at 15-3 (5-1). With Blackmon dropping 21 points, and the team nailing 10 of 11 free throws, the Cats were able to escape with a 66-64 win, snapping the Tigers' 13-game home winning streak. K-State wasn't able to capitalize on the win in the polls, however, as three days later at Norman the Cats were undone when Aaron Curry hit a jumper with three seconds left to give the Sooners a 56-55 win.
The Cats won the next two at home, in overtime over Colorado and by ten over Oklahoma State, before the wheels fell off. The Oklahoma State win got the Cats back into the top 20 at #19, but a pair of injuries wrecked the remainder of the regular season. Tyrone Adams broke his hand, and Tim Jankovich sprained a knee; the lineup didn't gel immediately in their absence. They were beaten by 8 at Ames, by two at home to the hated Jayhawks, suffered an embarrasing 12-point setback at Nebraska, and finally Missouri got its revenge with a two-point win in Manhattan to end the regular season. The Cats were 18-8 (8-6), and in deep trouble despite Blackman earning Big Eight Player of the Year honors
They took out their anger on the Cyclones in the opening round of the conference tournament, however. All five starters hit double figures on the way to a 14-point romp, Blackman leading the way with 22 on his birthday while Jari Wills added 18, Nealy 15, and substitute starters Les Craft and Gerry Marshall had 11 and 10 respectively. In the semis, the Cats fell behind Nebraska, who held Ro to a mere point in the first half; he bounced back with 15 in the second half, including a put-back with 15 seconds remaining to seal the 60-59 win. That left the Jayhawks, who upended top-seeded Missouri in the other semifinal.
It wasn't even close.
K-State jumped out to a 23-6 lead, and Nealy set a Big Eight record in the process by knocking down his 17th-straight field goal. The Cats then went a little cold, but the the lull didn't last. Wills ended up shoveling in 24 points, and Blackman added 22 (setting the Big Eight Tournament scoring record at 60, although granted the tourney had only been held four times to this point). Nealy added 17, and the Cats romped to a 79-58 win, and a trip back to the NCAA Tournament. Blackman, Nealy, and Wills were all named to the all-tournament team.
The Wildcats got the seventh seed in the Midwest, and headed up the road to Lincoln for a first-round tilt with the tenth-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks on March 6. The opener was a walk; although it was 27-21 at the half (aided by holding Razorback star Scott Hastings scoreless), a 17-4 run midway through the second half buried Arkansas, who never again got within 16. Blackman led the Cats with 15, while Wills and Marshall each scored a dozen, and the Cats won 71-53. Waiting for them in the second round, however, was a team that had already toppled them once before: Louisville, who had ascended the rankings to #2 by this point.
K-State did not lose by a dozen this time. The Cats led most of the first half, as Glenn Marshall dumped in 14 before the intermission, but a late run by the Cardinals put them in front by a pair at the buzzer. The teams jostled for the second half. With three minutes to go, Louisville had a five-point lead, but the Cats scored five straight, the last coming on a Blackman charity toss with two seconds to go, and K-State had bushed the Cardinals to overtime. Louisville took the lead on a Darrell Griffith jumper, but he fouled out shortly thereafter; Ro sunk both free throws to tie it back up. Louisville then stalled, waiting to take the final shot. With two seconds remaining, Tony Branch sank a 12-footer to put an end to the Wildcats' season.
Arguably, the four-game skid to end the regular season severely damaged the Wildcats' chances of a deep post-season run. Louisville was on fire, and indeed went on to with the national championship as they cruised past Texas A&M, Louisiana State, Iowa, and UCLA. Even a bump to the #5 seed would have at least kept them out of the Cardinals' path until the regional final; instead, it was Mizzou in the five slot, and they advanced one round further, knocking off San Jose State and Notre Dame (in overtime) before bowing out against LSU.
As noted, Blackman was the conference player of the year, and a first-team selection. He was also honored by the AP as a third-team All-American. How would his senior season turn out?
I guess you'll have to wait and see if 1980-81 makes the list, won't you?