We left off with Jack Hartman's last hurrah, so it's somewhat amusing that the very next entry takes us back to the beginning. Cotton Fitzsimmons had come in to replace the great Tex Winter, and in his second year had let the Wildcats to a Big Eight title and a disappointing NCAA tournament appearance... and then he left to take over the head job with the Atlanta Hawks. (Six years later, he'd end up coaching the Kansas City Kings, which led to all sorts of forgiveness for his earlier departure as he led the Kings to their only real success in Kansas City.) His replacement was of course Jack Hartman, who came over from Southern Illinois where he had led the Salukis to four 20-win seasons in eight years (back when winning 20 games really meant something) and an NIT title in 1967 (back when an NIT title still meant something, too). Hartman had played under the legendary Hank Iba at Oklahoma State, and luring him to Manhattan was universally considered a solid move. In his first season, the Cats regressed to a 11-15 mark, finishing in a tie for fifth, but having lost eight seniors from Fitzsimmons' tourney squad (including first-team all-conference Jerry Venable) explained that.
The 1971-72 squad included the previous two Big Eight Sophomores of the Year: senior Bob Zender and junior Steve Mitchell. Senior David Hall had received positive attention the previous year, and Hartman had a five-man sophomore class lined up to start the year.
That class included a kid named Lon Kruger.
The season began at the BYU Classic in Provo, where Hartman's charges lost to the 19th-ranked Cougars by six in the first round, claiming third-place honors the following day with a win over Pacific. Two days later, #10 Kentucky came to Manhattan and beat the Wildcats by seven, but the homestand continued with three straight blowout wins over Texas, Wichita State, and Creighton. All of that was undone on a strange three-game road trip, however; the team traveled to Seattle to play Washington twice on consecutive nights, losing both, before heading to Wichita for a return game against the Shockers which was lost in overtime. Heading into the Big Eight Holiday Tournament, things looked grim at 4-5.
They did not win the tournament, but did brush aside Oklahoma and Iowa State before succumbing to Missouri in the final. That got the 'Cats back to .500 before the start of actual conference play. (The Big Eight Holiday Tournament games did not count as conference games.) For two weeks, the Wildcats continued their up-and-down ways; a home win over the Cyclones preceded a four-game trip where they lost to Kansas in two overtimes, then beat Oklahoma State and Oklahoma before finishing the trip with a loss to Nebraska. The record stood at 9-8 (3-2), and it looked like a perfectly mediocre season was the team's destiny.
It wasn't. The Wildcats reeled off seven straight wins and took over first place in the conference. On March 7, leading 19th-ranked Missouri by a game with two to play, the Cats headed to Columbia with an eye toward settling matters. Kruger led the way with 22, while Mitchell scored 19 and Danny Beard 17; it was a three-point play by Mitchell in the final two minutes that sealed the 79-76 win, and clinched the Big Eight title. After the game, Norm Stewart would bitterly complain that the extra lighting needed for the TV crews was the reason for the Tigers' loss. The Cats concluded the regular season with their ninth straight win four days later, topping Nebraska at home in overtime, and then waited to see who they were going to face a week later when they finally drove up to Ames for the Midwest Regional.
A brief digression. Most people understand that the only at-large bids available prior to 1975 were restricted to independents -- that is, if you were IN a conference, you had to win it to get into the tournament. What most people don't realize is that the regional assignments were also predetermined before the season even began; for the Midwest Region, the Big Eight and Missouri Valley champions automatically received byes into the regional semifinals, while the Southwest Conference champion required a first-round win to get there.
In 1972, things were further complicated; Texas and Southern Methodist had tied for the SWC title, and thus had to face each other in a one-game playoff to see who'd face independent Houston in the first round. (Louisville also had to win a playoff over Memphis State to secure the MVC's autobid.) Texas got past the Mustangs 91-89, then handled Houston 85-74 in Las Cruces, and the Wildcats got back to work.
The semifinal against the Longhorns would give fans of the 2011-12 Wildcats post-traumatic stress disorder. Midway through the second half, the Cats held a 43-32 lead, but Texas erupted for a 15-4 run to take the lead with five minutes left in a scenario which is all too familiar 40 years later. The 1972 edition of the Wildcats, however, just got mad. Specifically, Hall -- who had been named to the Big Eight all-conference first team -- got mad, pouring in nine of his 13 points in the next three minutes as K-State answered with a 15-5 run to ice the game. Beard had 20, Kruger 11, and Ernie Kusnyer added 12 as the Cats scored 19 points in the final five minutes and prevailed 66-55, moving on to the Elite Eight.
That set up a match with fourth-ranked Louisville to determine who'd be moving on to the Final Four in Los Angeles. The first half was a nightmare, as Jim Price led the Cardinals to a 20-point lead late in the first half, which was only narrowed to 42-26 at the intermission. Kruger had been held scoreless, but erupted coming back out of the locker room; he had 14 in the second half, and 22-7 run leading to the mid-point of the second half closed the gap to 52-49. Unfortunately, that's as close as it got. Louisville inched away again, eventually winning the contest 72-65. Louisville would go on to lose to UCLA in the national semifinals, then to North Carolina in the consolation game.
You'll recall that Louisville knocked K-State out in 1980, in #15 of our countdown; that was the third of three times Louisville ended the Wildcats' season. This was the second; the first was in 1968, although that was a defeat in the regional consolation game after K-State lost to TCU in the semifinals. Yes, they actually held a third-place regional game back in those days.
With the loss, Hall's career came to a close. Kruger, who received a second-team all-Big Eight nod, would take over the team leadership the following season... and if you've been trying to figure out the method to my madness, it won't surprise you to learn we'll be talking about that season tomorrow.