Last August, a man was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The recognition was long overdue in the eyes of many, as he had not only served as the head coach at several successful college programs, but had devised one of the deadliest offensive schemes in the history of the sport. He worked as an assistant coach for teams which won nine NBA titles after leaving the college game, working in tandem with a guy named Phil Jackson. The triangle offense, made famous by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, was perfectly familiar to older Kansas State fans, as they saw it in action in Manhattan from 1953-1968.
That man, of course, is the legendary Tex Winter, and this is our first opportunity to discuss him in this series. Today's entry is from the middle of his tenure; #10 on our list is the 1958-59 squad.
Gone from the previous year's Final Four squad was three-time first-team all-Big Seven center Jack Parr (who had also been named to NABC's third-team All-America squad). Second-team all-Big Seven guard Roy DeWitz was also absent, drafted by Detroit (but never played a minute in the NBA), as was a reserve by the name of Gene Keady. The loss of Parr and DeWitz was serious, but remaining in the fold was K-State's biggest star: two-time first-team all-conference forward Bob Boozer, the league's reigning player of the year and a consensus first-team All-America selection. Winter, for his part, was the reigning conference coach of the year, as well as having received that honor nationally from UPI. An additional positive sign for the Cats was something that happened an hour downstream on the Kaw: Wilt Chamberlain had left Kansas to turn pro.
Still, the season -- the first season of the Big Eight, as Oklahoma State joined (or rejoined, depending on your viewpoint) -- had all the markers to indicate the potential for a disappointing campaign. It was, but in a completely different fashion than anyone expected.
The season opened with a pair of home tilts against Big Ten powerhouses. In the season opener, the Wildcats absolutely destroyed visiting Purdue, with Boozer lighting up the Boilermakers with a 45-point performance -- 23 of them from the stripe in a chippy contest. Five days later, Boozer scored 28 before fouling out, but sophomore Cedric Price popped a free throw in the final seconds of regulation to send the game to overtime, and the Wildcats prevailed over Indiana 82-79.
The season's first poll was released, with the Cats checking in at #3. A road trip out west saw tight wins at California and San Francisco (then still a major power, although unranked at the time) before the team suffered a nine-point loss at Brigham Young to end the trip. It was nothing more than a hiccup. Later in the week, a win at home over 4th-ranked North Carolina State more than made up for the loss; a quick jaunt to Philadelphia added a road win over #14 Saint Joseph's, and the only damage to the Cats' ranking was a slip to #4.
By the end of the Big Eight Holiday Tournament, which the Wildcats won with victories over Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado, they were back up to #3 and ready for conference play. It was a walkover. After opening conference play with a three-point win at Iowa State, the Cats then proceeded to beat every single team on the schedule by 10 points or more, with the exception of a 50-43 win at Nebraska on February 2. Included in the skein were wins over Colorado by 30 and Oklahoma by 45 in consecutive home games, a 23-point retaliation against Iowa State, and to cap everything off in the regular season's penultimate contest, a 108-69 humiliation of Missouri. That game finally -- after spending the entire season bobbling between the 2-4 spots in the poll -- pushed the Cats to #1, and they were the heavy favorites to capture the NCAA title. They'd finished the regular season with a 24-1 mark, on a 20-game winning streak, and had run the table in the Big Eight.
In addition to the front-runner position, the team was showered with accolades. Boozer, who'd averaged a gaudy 25.6 points per game, repeated as a consensus first-team All-American, this time in unanimous fashion. He repeated as Big Eight player of the year, and Winter repeated as coach of the year. Boozer was joined on the all-conference first team by Don Matuszak, while Wally Frank was named to the second team.
It was (and remains) the greatest season in Wildcat basketball history. Alas, we're not here to talk about the greatest seasons.
The regional semifinals in Lawrence were not a problem; Frank scored 23, Boozer added 16 with 12 rebounds, and three other players reached double figures in a 102-70 rout of DePaul. The strictly regional format of the tournament, however, meant that the regional final would be a titanic clash between two top-five teams. K-State's opponent was the champions of the Missouri Valley, fifth-ranked Cincinnati, led by Oscar Robertson.
It was a chippy game; midway through the first half, the officials admonished Matuszak and Robertson (the team captains) to get things settled down. K-State led 41-39 at the half, but the nature of the half led to what would later become a huge problem: Price, Boozer, and Steve Douglas were all in foul trouble.
The real undoing, however, was Robertson. He scored 24 despite being harried by a double-team, but the real damage came almost as a direct result of that pressure; his 13 assists allowed Dave Tenwick to notch 22 and three other players to reach double figures. Robertson added 17 rebounds for a triple-double. Boozer led the scoring with 32, but got little help, and Cincinnati pulled away in the second half to emerge with an 85-75 win. Boozer's stellar career in Manhattan was suddenly over.
After the game, Earl Morey of the Lawrence Journal-World was openly critical of the behavior of Cincinnati's fans but noted the team itself had, after the early rough play, comported itself with grace.
The Bearcats went on to lose to California in the semifinals; Cal, who K-State had beaten in December, went on to win the title over West Virginia.
It was a brutally disappointing conclusion to the best season in K-State's storied history. The Wildcats have come closer to a title on four occasions, but even acknowledging the reality that the season ended at the hands of one of the greatest basketball players to have ever walked the earth, this post-season clearly has to rank as the worst of K-State's Elite Eight runs simply due to the expectations heading into the tournament.