Jack Gardner first came to Manhattan in 1939 to take over from Frank Root. It was a dark period for K-State basketball; in six years, Root had let the team to an abysmal .345 winning percentage, and only once during his tenure were two Big Six teams below K-State in the standings. During the first three years of Gardner's career, things weren't appreciably better, but when Gardner was called up to serve in World War II things got even worse. So when Gardner was able to return for the 1946-47 season, he was welcomed back with open arms.
That first season back, the Wildcats again finished in fifth place, but at least managed a winning overall record (at 14-10) for the first time since 1930-31. Three starters would be returning from that squad: forwards Harold Howey and Rick Harman, and guard John Dean. Lost, however, was second-team all-Big Six selection Keith Thomas. There wasn't a great deal of expectation leading into the 1947-48 campaign, which -- in addition to being the first year of the Big Seven with Colorado joining the league -- is #4 on our list.
The season got underway with three home games. The first two were against decidedly lesser competition, as the Cats handled Rockhurst and Culver-Stockton. A week later, Texas Christian came to town and suffered a blistering 75-17 defeat at the hands of Gardner's boys. The next four games were in Kansas City; first, a win over Indiana, then the Big Seven Holiday Tournament. The Cats handled Oklahoma, Kansas, and Oklahoma A&M (who not a member of the conference yet, but was invited to the tournament to make the field an even eight) to win the tournament, and suddenly K-State was a threat.
A home win over Fort Hays State preceded a three-game swing to the east coast. In Buffalo, the Cats eked out a two-point win over Canisius, then four days later breezed past Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia. They trekked up to Brooklyn then to face Long Island, where the 10-game winning streak came to a screeching halt as the Blackbirds won by 19.
It was only a mild setback, however. Returning home, the Cats got conference play underway with convincing wins over Colorado and Iowa State, then officially closed out non-conference play with an 11-point win over Drake. Road wins at Nebraska and Colorado followed, but then two consecutive two-point defeats stung the squad, at Missouri and at home to Oklahoma. They recovered, crushing Kansas at home, then handling Missouri at home and Iowa State on the road. A home win over Nebraska clinched the Big Seven title, and a 61-60 win at Kansas iced the cake. The season ended with a loss at Oklahoma, but with the title in hand the only damage was pride.
The NCAA field then was much smaller, of course, and to even qualify for the "actual" tournament, the Cats were obliged to face the Missouri Valley champions in a one-game playoff. That meant a rematch with Oklahoma A&M, which the Cats won convincingly in a 43-34 grinder. It took ten years, but Kansas State was in their first NCAA Tournament.
In Kansas City, the Wildcats had no trouble at all with Wyoming. The Cats led by 18 late before Gardner pulled the starters, and although Wyoming then made a run, it was far too late. K-State won 58-48, and were officially in the Final Four. They were heavily favored to reach the championship game with a win the following evening against Baylor -- so much so that Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp had sent a scout to watch K-State beat Wyoming, but hadn't thought to keep him there to get a look at Baylor. Alas, the Bears recorded at 60-52 upset, and the championship dream was dead.
However, back in those days, the losers of the regional finals were also invited to the championship site to play for third place. That meant a trip to Madison Square Garden for the Cats, where they faced off against Bob Cousy and the Holy Cross Crusaders. Holy Cross jumped out to an early lead and were 12 points clear at the half, but the Wildcats made a valiant comeback. K-State managed to get within three at 50-47, but in the end Cousy's magic was too much, and the Crusaders won 60-54.
Immediately, rumors surfaced regarding Jack Gardner's job prospects. UCLA, Minnesota, and Boston College were all reported to have made advances, but after the defeat to Holy Cross Gardner offered a no-comment to those rumors, stating that he was very happy at K-State. That would continue to be the case for five more years, and we're going to be talking about one of them before we're done.
The '48 Wildcats were showered with honors. Howie Shannon was named as a second-team All-American by the Helms Foundation (this was a contemporary selection, as opposed to the retroactive selection most people think of when they see a Helms nod). Shannon and Clarence Brannum were named to the Big Seven first team, while an expanded second team included Howey and Harmon. Shannon and Howey were gone after the season, however, and the following year saw the Wildcats slip to 13-11 and a third-place finish. It seemed as though perhaps K-State was just a one-hit wonder... but they'd be back.