Today, we slide back to the glory years of the early eighties. We've already covered 1979-80 at #15, and some familiar names will be present in today's entry. One that will not be is Rolando Blackman, as number thirteen on our list is 1981-82.
Blackman graduated following the 1981 season and (spoiler alert) K-State's run to the Elite Eight. That left a huge hole, but the cupboard wasn't bare. Ed Nealy returned, as did Tyrone Adams and reigning Big Eight Newcomer of the Year Randy Reed. (Oddly, all three seasons we've covered so far had the reigning Newcomer of the Year on the roster. Strange coincidence.) So while perhaps a deep tournament run wasn't something Wildcat Nation could expect heading into fall 1981, the pieces were there for a solid squad. The fans would not be disappointed.
The early season was perhaps a little too patsy-laden. To wit, three of the Wildcats' first five wins came in Manhattan at the expense of non-Division I opposition -- Division II South Dakota and Wisconsin-Parkside, and even an NAIA team in Auburn-Montgomery. Northern Iowa was another victim, and they were in their first year of Division I competition. Indeed, in the only real tests the Cats faced before Christmas, they went 2-2; losses at Indiana and Illinois, wins at home over Arizona and Minnesota. After Christmas, they ripped off four straight home wins to close out the non-conference slate, dispatching Southern Illinois, UNLV, Marquette, and Western Illinois. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't impressive, but the Wildcats were set to enter Big Eight play with a 10-2 record.
Wins at home over Iowa State and at Colorado launched the Cats into the top 20; a home win over Oklahoma followed three days later by a trouncing of Kansas at Ahearn moved K-State to #14 in the polls at 14-2 (4-0). The following week was unpleasant, though. They suffered a road loss at Oklahoma State before returning home to face Missouri, unbeaten ranked #1 in the nation. It would be the third time in Tiger history that Missouri would enter a game against K-State at 17-0. All three times, they were looking to win 18 in a row for the first time ever; both previous times (in 1920 and 1921), the Wildcats ended the streak. Mizzou wasn't taking this game lightly for that reason, and to their credit the Cats gave them everything they could handle. Missouri only led by one at the half, but Jon Sundvold ripped off six straight points to help the Tigers stretch the lead to eight with nine minutes to go. Poor foul shooting let K-State back into the game, however, and Tyrone Adams got the Cats within one with half a minute to go on a pair of charity shots. It wasn't to be, though, as Steve Stipanovich received a full-court lob on the in-bounds and crashed in a thunderous dunk; Tim Jankovich got a bucket with two seconds left, but that was the ball game. Missouri had escaped with a 59-58 win.
The Cats picked themselves up and moved on. They won at Nebraska, then beat Colorado at home. A loss to Oklahoma in Norman was a letdown, but they recovered and dispatched Iowa State in Ames three days later. They slipped up against Oklahoma State in Manhattan (a loss which would result in them temporarily falling out of the poll), but then went to Lawrence and handed the Jayhawks a 10-point defeat before moving on to Columbia to again face the Tigers. This time, the Tigers were only ranked fifth, having been tripped up by Nebraska immediately after the Wildcats win over the Huskers and losing a non-conference tilt with Georgetown. And this time, Ed Nealy scored the last two of his 17 points on free throws in the final five seconds to lift K-State to a 57-56 upset. A home win over Nebraska concluded the regular season at 20-6 (10-4), firmly in second place and back in the poll at #17.
They took down Kansas in Manhattan in the first round, but disaster struck in the semifinals as the Sooners notched a six-point win. Oklahoma went on to lose to Missouri in the final, while the Wildcats were going to have to wait and see if they were tournament-bound since the field was still only 48 teams.
They did, in fact, make the field (otherwise we wouldn't be talking about them), drawing the five seed in the Midwest, alongside Missouri at the two. In the first round in Dallas, Les Craft exploded for 21 points, with Randy Reed adding 15, as the Cats shoved 12-seeded MAC champs Northern Illinois aside 77-68. Northern Illinois made the first bucket of the game, and never led again. That led to a second-round tilt with fourth-seed Arkansas, which was effectively a home game for the Hogs (for whom Dallas's Reunion Arena would come to be known as "Barnhill South").
The Cats played a strong game, however. Tyrone Adams scored 21, including nine points late to give K-State a five-point cushion. Les Craft scored with just a minute to go to stretch it to 65-58, but then Arkansas mounted a furious literal last-minute rally. It wasn't until Scott Hastings fired a 25-footer from the corner which bounced harmlessly off the back of the rim with one second left that the result was settled; K-State had escaped with a 65-64 win.
(By the way: Hastings, who also came up in the 1979-80 discussion, was almost a Wildcat. Hailing from Independence, Kansas, he had an offer from K-State, and came very close to accepting it. Both his college career, and the fortunes of the Wildcats, might have been drastically different if he had; he really was a heck of a player, and half of his post-seasons always seemed to end at the hands of the team he turned down.)
That put the Wildcats into the Sweet Sixteen, and things looked pretty good: their opponent in Saint Louis was the eighth seed, Boston College, who had surprised top-seeded DePaul. Things stayed close throughout, though the Eagles never took a lead until 35 minutes into the game. The Cats, though, were tired, and a costly error was fatal. Ed Galvao was stripped of the ball driving to the basket to tie the game in the final two minutes, and after immediately fouling John Bagley, two free throws later Boston College had a four-point lead. They never relinquished it, and the Cats' season crumbled to dust.
If there was one bright spot on that night, it was that Missouri had also fallen to Houston in the other Midwest semifinal, but that was small consolation. Boston College lost to Houston, who in turn lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the Final Four. It would be the final hurrah for K-State's early-eighties run, as they would miss the post-season entirely for four straight years following their exit -- their longest post-season drought ever until the Woolridge era. It was a state of affairs which would lead Jack Hartman, one of K-State's most beloved figures, to decide it was finally time to hang up the whistle in 1986.