Yesterday we covered the 1971-72 campaign; #11 on our list is the following season, 1972-73. As mentioned, most of the main cast returned, the only notable departure being senior all-conference center David Hall. Fresh off an appearance in the Elite Eight, the Cats set forth to defend their Big Eight title, beginning the season ranked at #17.
A pair of home wins against San Diego State and Eastern Kentucky opened the season, followed by a move to #16 and a win at Utah. A ten point loss at Tulsa was a disappointment, but after crushing North Texas at home the Cats remained ranked, at #20. They then managed a six-point win over Iowa on the road, then home victories over Washington and Arizona led into the Big Eight Holiday Tournament. Kansas fell by 21 in the first round, but Iowa State gave the Cats everything they could handle in the second before falling 69-66. For the second year in a row, K-State would face 7th-ranked Missouri for the Holiday Classic title. The Tigers led by 15 at one point early in the second half, but Danny Beard and Steve Mitchell went on a tear to close the gap. After the run, however, Mizzou reasserted dominance, and came away with an 82-72 win.
The Cats slipped to 17th, and after closing non-conference play with a narrow win at SMU, came home for the first rematch with the unbeaten Tigers, now ranked 5th. Lon Kruger missed the game with an ankle tweak, but Bob Chipman stepped in and notched 17 points to go with Steve Mitchell's 20, and the Wildcats had stepped into the early driver's seat after a 70-55 rout. They moved up to 14th, but their only game the following week was a 12-point loss at Oklahoma which sent them right back down to 18th. After that, though, the team embarked on a seven-game winning streak during which they swept Kansas and Iowa State, beat Oklahoma State at home, and picked up road wins at Nebraska and Colorado. Once again, it was time for the Tigers, this time in Columbia with the Cats now ranked #13 and Missouri at #16. Once again, however, the home team prevailed by a bunch, Missouri winning 80-66.
A home win over the Sooners put the Cats in position to assure themselves of at least a tie with a win in Stillwater two nights later. A 15-2 run to start the contest set the tone, and led by Mitchell's 21 points, K-State roared to a 91-67 win. Five days later, five Cats hit double figures led by Ernie Kusnyer's 22, and a 97-70 rout of Nebraska at home sent Kansas State into the NCAA Tournament once again. A week later, 11th-ranked Colorado was forced to settle for a second-place tie with Missouri after the Wildcats closed the regular season with a 10-point win over the Buffs at home.
The season's denouement moved K-State up to #9 in the poll. Three Cats earned post-season accolades; Kruger was named to the first team, while Mitchell and Kusnyer nabbed second-team honors. The same night as K-State's final regular season contest, the Ragin' Cajuns of Southwestern Louisiana obliterated Houston in the first round of the NCAAs to determine the Cats' regional semifinal opponent.
(Yesterday, during my digression on how the bracket was pre-determined, I should have mentioned that the SWC champion's semifinal opponent alternated annually, for the most part, between the Big Eight and Missouri Valley.)
The Wildcats faced a tough task, as Southwestern Louisiana had rapidly put together a brutally powerful program, although they were already under the NCAA's radar and facing 125 counts of recruiting violations. They were ranked 7th in the country, and some observers allowed that they were a legitimate threat to unhorse UCLA and take the title. After the first two minutes, K-State never trailed. The Cajuns did chip away at a 12-point halftime lead, but Kansas State never lost composure. A Kruger layup with 54 seconds to go put K-State back in the lead after a late tying bucket. And an errant Cajun pass into the backcourt 29 seconds later, followed by a Kruger free throw, sealed the win. As it happened, K-State's win saved everyone a lot of embarrassment; after the season ended and the NCAA's investigation ran its course, Southwestern Louisiana received the death penalty, forced to shut down their program for two years. Further, they had to vacate this appearance; from the Ragin' Cajun perspective, this game never happened at all.
Next up was 12th-ranked Memphis State, led by star (and future coach) Larry Finch. Kusyner scored 21 points, but midway through the first half Memphis State took the lead, and then poured it on in the second half. Finch ended up with 32 points, and Memphis strolled to a 92-72 win to advance to the Final Four -- an appearance which was not, surprisingly, vacated.
These two seasons were the apex of a curve for the Wildcats, although they'd reach the post-season one way or another in each of the following four years. Lon Kruger would capture Big Eight player of the year honors in 1974, his senior season, but the Cats would be obliged to settle for an appearance in the Collegiate Commissioners Association Tournament where they were upended in the first round by Bradley. The CCAT was a tournament set up by the NCAA to compete with the NIT, open to teams which finished in second place in their conferences, but the 1975 expansion of the field and the beginning of at-large eligibility put an end to that tourney's brief existence.
1975, however, is a story for later. Tomorrow, we'll reach way back -- back to the very first season of the Big Eight (as opposed to the Big Seven, anyway).