Bob Boozer's graduation after the disappointment of the 1959 tournament exit left a pretty big hole. No surprise there; when you lose someone who will one day be elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame, you're generally going to take a step back. It was no different for the Cats, who settled for a first-place tie with the hated Jayhawks in 1960 and then lost a one-game playoff to them, 84-82, to end their season a basket short of the NCAA Tournament. The failure to win 20 games interrupted what would have otherwise been a streak of five straight 20-win seasons in an era where they were much harder to come by.
That empty season saw Wally Frank named to the Big Eight first team, and Steve Douglas to the second; they would graduate, however, along with fifth starter Sonny Ballard. Postmen Cedric Price and Mike Wroblewski would be the only returning starters in 1960-61, #9 on our countdown. Winter, winner of a third consecutive Big Eight Coach of the Year award, was working on moderate expectations.
A home win over Texas A&M was followed by a brutal 18-point loss to Indiana in Manhattan, and then the Cats began a three-game western road swing with a 10-point setback at UCLA. Wins at USC and New Mexico, however, were enough to convince the pollsters to insert the squad at #20. Then they came home to face #5 North Carolina in an event dubbed the Sunflower Doubleheader.
In the opening game, the Jayhawks crushed Michigan State 93-69. The Wildcats did not have quite so easy a task; despite Larry Comley's 33 points, K-State trailed by six at the half and had to get into overtime to topple the Tar Heels by a final score of 77-69. All four teams then repaired to Lawrence for the trade-off. The Wildcats matched Kansas in the opener, throttling the Spartans 104-82 behind 22 from Comley, but the Jayhawks were unable to handle North Carolina in the nightcap. K-State moved up to #12 in the rankings.
One more non-conference tilt remained prior to the Big Eight Holiday Tournament, and the Wildcats took care of Colorado State at home before capturing that title with wins over Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and -- in overtime -- Kansas. The conference slate started off with the exact same three teams, in the same order; they won at OSU and beat Oklahoma at home before their ten-game winning streak was snapped in Lawrence. The loss temporarily dropped the Cats from the top 10, but wins at home over both Oklahoma squads and a sweep of Iowa State pushed them back to #7 heading into a tussle with Colorado in Boulder.
The Cats lost, 81-80. However, after the season, that result would be reversed; it would be discovered that Colorado's Maurice "Wilkie" Gilmore was ineligible, and all but one of Colorado's league wins were forfeited.
Bouncing back from the loss, the Wildcats beat Missouri by 29 in Columbia, thrashed Kansas by 18 at home, then drilled Mizzou again by 20 before traveling to Lincoln and handing the Huskers a 10-point setback. After returning home and crushing Nebraska by 19, the Cats moved to #4 in the polls, where they would remain; the regular season ended with a 17-point home win over Colorado. End result, after the application of the Colorado forfeits: K-State had notched the second of their two unbeaten conference championships, both occurring in the space of three seasons.
The 1961 NCAA Tournament was eerily similar to the 1959 edition. The regional was again in Lawrence, the Cats again faced the winner of the play-in, and the Missouri Valley champion waiting on the other side of the bracket was once again Cincinnati, ranked #2 in the country. Houston dispatched Marquette by 16 in the play-in; the Cats had little difficulty with the Cougars in the semifinals, leading throughout. Comley scored 18, Price added a dozen, and each had 12 rebounds as K-State notched a 75-64 win. Over in the other semi, Cincinnati crushed Texas Tech 78-55, and the stage was set for the third meeting in four years between Wildcat and Bearcat.
Cincinnati had again reached the Final Four the previous year after knocking off Kansas in the regionals, but lost to Cal in the semifinals. Oscar Robertson's three years as a Bearcat had seen a defeat to Kansas State, a win over Kansas State, and two Final Four appearances, but no title. But Robertson was no longer around to harry the Cats this year. Cincinnati had reloaded, however. The 1961 Bearcats featured Paul Hogue and Bob Wiesenhahn, who had scored 24 and 22 respectively against the Red Raiders, and sophomore Tom Thacker. Thacker didn't possess Robertson's scoring touch, but the two shared an uncanny passing sense and great rebounding ability.
The two titans battled to a 33-all tie at the half with Cincinnati never having held the lead, and the Wildcats pushed forward in the early part of the second period. Things looked promising, as Hogue was not only being held in check -- he would finish with only eight points -- but foul trouble was keeping him off the floor for significant stretches as well. Halfway through the second half, the Bearcats managed to pull even at 48. It would be another 90 seconds before either team found the basket, but it was Cincinnati's Carl Bouldin who finally did so, knocking down a turn-around jumper to put Cincinnati in the lead.
They never relinquished it. Four Wildcats reached double figures in the contest, but only barely; Comley led the way with 16, Wroblewski had 11, and both Price and Al Peithman had 10. It wasn't enough, as once again Kansas State bowed out to Cincinnati, this time by a score of 69-64. The Bearcats went on to do what Robertson had been unable to, crushing Utah before taking down Ohio State in overtime for their first of two straight national titles. At least they didn't have to go through K-State the following year; the Cats lost out to Colorado for the Big Eight crown.
The loss ended the career of Cedric Price, who along with Peithman was named to the Big Eight second team. Another Wildcat whose career ended was a little-used reserve by the name of Bill Guthridge. Comley garnered first-team honors, while Winter won his fourth straight Coach of the Year award. It was almost as disappointing as the 1959 season, though at least this time Cincinnati had been favored. The rivalry did not end here; the two teams scheduled a home-and-home series in 1962-63 and 1963-64. Cincinnati, ranked #1 at the time, captured the first of those contests in Manhattan. The return game in Cincinnati?
We'll have to get to that later.