Ernie Barrett. The man has a statue. That's pretty important, coach. (via kgwo1972 at Wikimedia; public domain)
A devastating loss in Lawrence to the #19 Jayhawks had put an end to the season for the Wildcats, then ranked #14, on March 7, 1950. That loss caused the Big Seven race to end in a three-way tie at 8-4, and in those early days of the NCAA tournament, no Big Seven team was selected for post-season play. Four Wildcats were honored after the season: Clarence Brannum earned his second first-team nod, while Ernie Barrett, Rick Harman, and Lloyd Krone received second-team honors.
Only Barrett returned for the 1950-51 season, however, and it was an open question as to whether the Wildcats would be competitive. Spoiler alert: they were. The 1950-51 Wildcats were the most successful team in Kansas State basketball history, and conclude our countdown at #1.
And how appropriate is it that we do so the morning after Kentucky beat a team from Kansas for the national title?
Two non-conference games remained later in the schedule, but K-State started conference play with a 9-2 record, ranked ninth in the country. Missouri was destroyed in Columbia before a 40-point win at home over Iowa State. In Lawrence, the #17 Jayhawks put up a fight before losing 47-43; returning home, Colorado was dispatched by 21 before fourth-ranked Long Island returned the Cats' earlier visit with K-State having moved up to #7. Revenge was had: K-State won 85-65, and after comfortable road wins over Colorado and Nebraska slid up to #4. They moved up another notch after an 11-point home win over Missouri, but then suffered their first conference setback as they lost at Oklahoma by three. That dropped the Cats back to #5, but a win over Kansas at home moved them back to #4 the next week, and they clinched the Big Seven title five nights later in Manhattan by pounding the Huskers 74-48. Massive wins at Iowa State (81-47) and at home over the Sooners (87-48) ended the conference season at 11-1, and a 19-point romp at home over Illinois left K-State at 22-3 overall, and 5-1 against the Big Ten, heading into the NCAA Tournament.
In the West Regional at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, the first round was a clash of Wildcats. K-State jumped out to a 21-point lead over 12th-ranked Arizona, and Jack Gardner pulled the starters. It was too soon. Arizona started clawing back, and by the time Gardner was able to get the first team back on the floor, the lead was down to 14. They were cold, though, and and with three minutes remaining Arizona was on the end of a 24-6 run and trailing by only three. 90 seconds later, the lead was cut to one. Arizona started fouling, but back then you could refuse the free throws and take an in-bound instead; Gardner did so, and finally, with seconds remaining, Barrett sank the front end of two to give K-State a 61-59 win.
In the regional semifinal, it was another sort of cat altogether facing the Wildcats. Brigham Young, 68-61 winners over San Jose State and ranked #11 in the nation, awaited K-State. Again, the Wildcats jumped out to a huge early lead, up by 18 at the half. BYU rallied, and got within four midway through the second half, but K-State pulled away again and won 64-54 for a ticket to the regional final (which, in 1951, still meant the Final Four; the actual "Final Four" would not begin until 1952).
The West Final wasn't even close. The #24 Oklahoma A&M Aggies, who we now know as the Oklahoma State Cowboys, fell behind 20-5... and then 26-8... and, in the end, 68-44. Things were so dire for A&M that Hank Iba was refusing to shoot free throws because he didn't want K-State in possession of the ball. It was a comprehensive beatdown, and for the first -- and only -- time, K-State found itself in the NCAA Championship Game, held at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Their opponent was yet another group of Wildcats, these of the Bluegrass variety. Kentucky had won the title twice in the previous three years, City College of New York's 1950 title being the only interruption, but K-State was actually favored due to injuries to several Kentucky players. Through the first half, those predictions appeared accurate as K-State led 29-27 at the break. In the second half, though, Kentucky's Bill Spivey came alive. Spivey dominated the boards, and ended up with 22 points as Kentucky rolled to a 68-58 victory.
Ernie Barrett, now beloved and revered as Mister K-State even if our new coach can't get his name right, was named to the INS All-America first team, and received second-team nods from AP and Look and third-team recognition from UPI. He was joined on the Big Seven first team by Lew Hitch and Jack Stone.
Of course, from the K-State perspective, it could be said that the Wildcats were robbed. Six months later, three former Kentucky players -- Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, and Dale Barnstable -- were arrested on bribery and point-shaving charges stemming from games during the 1948-49 season. The resulting investigation pointed a flaming arrow straight at Lexington; Spivey was eventually charged with perjury and banned from ever playing for Kentucky again when his testimony contradicted the three other players (who claimed Spivey was in on the scheme). Also uncovered during the investigation were massive impermissible benefits being given out by Kentucky, and they were hit with the NCAA's first death penalty for the 1952-53 season.
One thing, however, is absolutely certain: in today's environment, Kentucky would have been stripped of the 1951 title, leaving Kansas State as the last team standing.
In all, it was an excellent season any way you slice it. K-State was really only even tested six times; the remaining games were all blowouts. Their four losses were by a total of seventeen points, over half of which came in the championship game. Gardner's career in Manhattan would conclude with two more solid seasons; a #6 ranking and a 19-5 record in 1951-52, and a #12 ranking at 17-4 in 1952-53. However, both seasons saw second-place finishes in the Big Seven, one game back of Kansas; the Jayhawks did was K-State couldn't in 1952, winning the national title, and lost the title game the following year. Gardner then departed for Utah, setting the stage for the Tex Winter era and the greatest stretch of long-term success for the Wildcat basketball program, but the 1950-51 season stands alone as Kansas State's shining moment.