The six-year era from the arrival of Jack Parr to the graduation of Cedric Price had been the high point of Kansas State basketball. The squad had made three NCAA tournament appearances and lost a one-game playoff by two points in 1960 which would have led to a fourth; heady accomplishments in an era where you had to win your conference title in order to get into the field. After Price graduated, the Wildcats had two years which were actually pretty good; a 22-3 record in 1961-62 included a Big Eight Holiday Tournament title and a final #6 ranking in the AP poll, but a 12-2 conference record was only good enough for second place, and the team's season ended the first week of March. In 1962-63, Kansas State recovered from a horrible 2-7 record against non-Big Eight teams to tie for the conference title and finish ranked #19, and only a four-overtime loss to Kansas prevented the Wildcats from capturing a second straight Holiday title. But two of the Cats' three conference losses were to Colorado, who captured the NCAA bid based on that tiebreak. (One of those non-conference losses was in Manhattan to #1-ranked and eventual runner-up Cincinnati, the penultimate installment in the teams' seven-year-long rivalry.)
The following year, the Wildcats returned first-team all-conference forward Willie Murrell, who'd averaged 18.6 points per game the previous year. Center Roger Suttner and guard Max Moss also returned, forming a formidable senior backbone. Along with junior forward Jeff Simons and sophomore guard Sammy Robinson, the team wasn't considered anything particularly special, but weren't to be taken lightly either. In the end, the 1963-64 Wildcats were responsible for the #2 spot in our countdown.
The season didn't begin in an auspicious manner, as the Wildcats brought November to an end with a 10-point loss at home to Minnesota. They then blew out South Dakota State in Manhattan before heading to the mideast, knocking off Saint Louis by a point then notching a nine-point win at Indiana. Next up was the Sunflower Classic double-doubleheader, with UCLA and USC traveling to Kansas together to serve as the opposition. On the first night, the Wildcats opened the proceedings in Lawrence with an excellent performance. Although they fell to the Bruin juggernaut, it was only a 78-75 loss; UCLA never led by more than four points with the exception of an 11-0 run midway through the first half which gave them an 11-point lead with four minutes to go, but K-State immediately rallied to get back within four points at halftime. Kansas knocked off USC, and all four teams headed to Manhattan for the second night. The unbeaten Jayhawks were blown out by UCLA 75-54, but the Wildcats finished the event by destroying USC 82-59 behind 29 points from Murrell. A home win over Denver followed, and then it was off to Cincinnati to face the fourth-ranked Bearcats.
Since the teams' last post-season clash, Cincinnati had won two NCAA titles, and had lost the 1963 title game to Loyola (IL). There was no real reason to expect this game to be competitive, but the Cats were up to the challenge. Murrell scored 25 points, and scored to tie the game with 14 seconds remaining. Ron Bonham fired a shot which clanged off the rim a second before the buzzer, but George Wilson was there waiting and tipped the rebound into the net, sending the Wildcats to a 72-70 defeat. It wasn't a moral victory, but it certainly built confidence.
The team traveled to Kansas City then for the Holiday Tournament, and dealt with Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma State to capture their third Holiday title in four years. Heading into conference play, the Cats stood at 8-3. The conference season got off to a bad start, however. Colorado eked out a one-point win in Manhattan to start the schedule. Iowa State fell by 19 in Manhattan five days later, but the Cats suffered a 19-point loss of their own to Oklahoma State two days after in Stillwater.
They did not lose another conference game. Reeling off 11 straight wins, including a stretch of three straight road overtime wins (against Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri), the Wildcats clinched the Big Eight title with two games left to play after avenging their loss to Oklahoma State with yet another overtime win, this time at home. The Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament at 20-5, although the resume was weak; their only games against ranked teams were the tip-in loss to #4 Cincinnati (who ended up not even making the tournament), and the three-point loss to #1 UCLA.
The Midwest Regional was in Wichita, which was a problem: Wichita (which wasn't yet State) was also in the field, and were ranked fifth. The Wildcats had a problem to deal with before even worrying about that, however, in their regional semifinal opponent Texas Western. That game stayed close until midway through the second half, when Texas Western's Jim Barnes fouled out early. The Cats immediately went on a 13-2 run, and hung on for a 64-60 win. With that out of the way, facing Wichita on their home floor in front of over 10,000 screaming Shocker fans became an issue worth worrying over.
Without knowing the final score, one might be forgiven for thinking the season ended once told that Wichita's Dave Stallworth had racked up 37 points and 16 rebounds. But a late first-half spurt by Murrell staked K-State to a 46-33 halftime lead, and Wichita simply could not recover. Murrell finished with 28 points, and all five starters reached double figures as the Wildcats advanced to the Final Four on the strength of a 94-86 win over the Shockers -- who had previously been lauded for their staunch defense.
Unfortunately, their semifinal opponent would be the top-ranked Bruins. Still, despite the fact that the Wildcats were unranked and only mildly regarded, the result of their previous meeting in Lawrence weighed large; UCLA was favored, but not prohibitively so. It was a shootout. UCLA managed to get to halftime with a 43-41 lead, but shortly after the teams returned to the floor Robinson hit a long jump shot to tie the matter at 45. The game would be tied seven more times before the end. After the midpoint of the half, K-State opened up a 75-70 lead, but then things fell apart. UCLA went on an 11-0 run to go up 81-75, and that was the difference. The Cats were unable to close the gap, and finally succumbed 90-84. Murrell had scored 29 points and hauled in 13 boards in a heroic effort, while Simons added 24, but the Cats were, again, forced to settle for the consolation game.
Their opponent was second-ranked Michigan, who had been knocked off by Duke 91-80. Michigan was obligated to take the court without star Cazzie Russell, who'd suffered an ankle injury in the loss to the Blue Devils. It didn't matter. The Cats were beaten on the boards 85-67, and lost the game 100-90. Two hours later, UCLA had pummeled Duke to win the title -- their first title ever, and one K-State could have prevented had they simply been able to hang on to that late lead.
Murrell was named Big Eight Player of the Year, and of course made the first team all-conference squad. Named to the second team were Robinson and Suttner. A season which didn't start with great expectations, and in which Kansas State wasn't even expected to do much once they reached the tournament, had ended in yet another fourth-place finish and a near-upset of the first of John Wooden's great UCLA fives. It was a fantastic and unexpected tournament run... but it still wasn't the greatest in school history.
Next: Every Man A Wildcat.