MANHATTAN — Darryl Winston gets plenty of chances to reminisce about his college basketball career. Someone is always calling the former Kansas State center to talk about three 20-win teams, two NCAA Tournaments or the time officials refused to count his tip-in during the closing moments of a 67-66 loss to Marquette with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
He enjoys all his memories, even that one, which led to the NCAA adopting what many dubbed “The Winston Rule” a year later.
Still, it only takes him a moment to recall his fondest memory — winning a conference championship as a senior in 1977.
“A lot of people correlate me and that team with Marquette and the tip-in they disallowed, but when I’m around my teammates and former athletes we talk about winning that Big Eight championship,” Winston said by phone. “Missouri was favored, Kansas was second and we were third. For us to win it in the fashion we did, beating Missouri in overtime and beating KU three times that year, it still makes us feel proud. It was an achievement.”
An achievement that K-State hasn’t matched since, though a chance comes Saturday at Oklahoma State.
The Wildcats pulled off a rare feat 36 years ago. Behind leading scorer Mike Evans, Curtis Redding, Larry Dassie and Winston, they won an outright Big Eight championship with an 11-3 record. It was a tight race, but K-State pulled away by closing out the regular season with seven straight victories. Then it won the Big Eight Tournament and advanced to the regional finals.
“We were a team that gave up a lot inside,” Winston said. “We had two centers get injured and no one else was taller than 6-5. Coach (Jack) Hartman told us we had to go small. In order to win we had to change our positions. It was a true David vs. Goliath story. We were underdogs, but we went out and played as hard as we could and gritted our teeth and battled until we won. Then we got treated like total rock stars.”
Since then, the Wildcats have been led by eight coaches and their conference has grown from eight members to 12, and now sits at 10. Amid all that change, they have played in made 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, reached the Elite Eight three times and won as many as 29 games, but they haven’t won a conference championship.
They were close at times, finishing second six times, but they have never broken through.
That could change Saturday afternoon. If K-State beats Oklahoma State at Gallagher-Iba Arena, it will clinch at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship. It’s tied for first with Kansas, which plays at Baylor on Saturday evening.
Senior wing Rodney McGruder says the Wildcats are holding nothing back. Picked fifth in the preseason, K-State’s dream of a league title seemed dead after back-to-back losses to Kansas and Iowa State in January. But the Wildcats have won 10 of 11.
K-State was in a similar situation when McGruder was a freshman. It entered a late-season game at Kansas on a seven-game winning streak. But Kansas won that game by 17. Two weeks later, K-State lost to Kansas in the title game of the Big 12 Tournament. It fell just short of two championships.
“I will never have a chance to win a Big 12 championship again,” McGruder said. “For me not to go out and give it 110 percent.… I’m going to ask that of my teammates on Saturday so we can achieve that … That’s what really stuck with me, to just go out and give it my all.”
When K-State coach Bruce Weber started practice on Thursday, he didn’t know what to expect. Would his team realize what was on the line and come ready to work? Or would they let the pressure get to them?
Junior guard Will Spradling was curious, too. But he left that practice optimistic.
“You can definitely see that we have picked up our intensity,” Spradling said. “That is great, because the last couple practices haven’t been very good. We really picked it up. You could definitely tell that we were excited.”
It helped that motivation was staring them in the face. When K-State constructed its new basketball practice facility, it hung banners above the court to commemorate past successes. The conference championship banner has a large blank space under the year 1977.
Sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez is already picturing the banner with “2013” added.
“When we win it, I don’t think we are going to have words to explain it,” Rodriguez said. “The Big 12 is such a competitive conference, especially after having KU win it for so many years. They are up there for the battle, too, but it is going to mean a lot to this whole university to win it.”
Weber likes that confidence. But he is reminding them of one thing: Stay loose.
“I know that it is pressure, but I am just telling them to come and play,” Weber said. “That’s all I ask of them. Play your butts off. Leave nothing on the court. No regrets. Whatever happens, happens … If we can get it, it would be a special thing. If we can’t get it, there is still a lot of basketball and a lot of things that can happen.”
Winston will be pulling hard for the Wildcats from his Topeka home. He is ready for the championship drought to end.
“It would help the program and the school in so many different ways,” Winston said. “This reminds me a lot of that undefeated Miami Dolphins team. Every time an undefeated team comes along they get asked how nervous they are about their record and they say they want to keep it. Well, we are the total opposites. I would love to see K-State win another championship.”