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Final four notes Cowboy boots, ruby slippers not required in Wichita

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, April 5, 2013, at 8:13 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 9:02 a.m.

— The Wichita State basketball players have been doing a whole lot of explaining when it comes to what they knew about the program before they decided to become a part of it.

There were more questions Friday, addressed to Carl Hall, Cleanthony Early and Malcolm Armstead during a morning media session.

Question: For all three players, could you just tell us how much you knew about Wichita State before you went to school there?

Hall: "I knew nothing about Wichita State. I had to Google it, see how big the city was. When I first heard the word ’Wichita," I’m thinking a small country town, people walking around with cowboy boots on, things like that.’’

Early: "Yeah, I didn’t know much about it, either. Carl pretty much hit it on the head. I had to do my research. I found out there were a couple of good things I liked about the school. I took my visit and I continued to like the things I found out. I made my decision and I felt pretty good about it. And I still feel good about it."

Armstead: "When I heard about Wichita State and found out that it was in Kansas, the first thing that came to mind was “The Wizard of Oz" and Dorothy. That was the only thing I really knew about it. But I’m glad I’m here. We’re making the most of our opportunity.’’

Big O’s big honor — Two former Missouri Valley Conference basketball greats were honored Friday as being among the top 15 players in the 75-year history of the NCAA Tournament.

Former Cincinnati All-American Oscar Robertson and ex-Indiana State forward Larry Bird joined Bill Russell, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Danny Manning, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner as players who had made the biggest impact on the tournament.

Robertson, a Bearcat from 1957-60, was one of three legends to participate in a news conference, along with Manning and Walton.

Cincinnati was a two-time national runnerup with Robertson, in 1959 and 1960. In both years, the Bearcats lost to California in the national semifinals. Cincinnati did win the Missouri Valley Conference championship in each of Robertson’s three years.

"It was a great conference,’’ Robertson said. "In those days, I think most of the teams in our conference were ranked in the Top 20 at one time.’’

There were actually four: Bradley, St. Louis, Wichita and Cincinnati, which won national championships in 1961 and 1962 and finished second to Loyola of Chicago in 1963.

Robertson is still No. 2 on the MVC’s career scoring list with 2,973 career points. He ranks as the No. 3 rebounder and had 10 triple-doubles. Assists were not kept as an official statistic when Robertson played, however.

"I very much enjoyed my time at Cincinnati and playing in the Missouri Valley,’’ said Robertson, 74. "It was the best conference in the country in those days, no doubt about it. College was great. I got my degree, I was very successful playing basketball and my grades were good. What else could you want from it?"

Madden ’13, anyone? — WSU assistant AD for media relations Larry Rankin, as you can imagine, has been spewing out a lot of information during Wichita State’s Final Four run. On Friday, he met with producers from CBS, which is televising Saturday’s national semifinals, and also spent time with Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr, who are calling both games.

Rankin also shook hands with CBS Sports president Sean McManus, which he proclaimed to be the highlight of his day.

After finishing talking to Nantz, the veteran play-by-play announcer reached into his bag, pulled out a Madden ’13 video game and handed it to Rankin.

"He just asked if I wanted it,’’ Rankin said. "So I took it.’’

He did say thanks.

Give them the what? — Wichita State, Syracuse and Louisville all practiced Friday at Oglethorpe University in the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven. It might be an omen for the Shockers, because Oglethorpe’s team colors are black and gold.

Oglethorpe, a Division III school, is nicknamed the Stormy Petrels. A stormy petrel is a small sea bird and there is a sign in Oglethorpe’s gymnasium that reads "Give Them the Bird."

Best wishes, Rakeem — On his show "Late Night" recently, host Jimmy Fallon said he was rooting for Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament because of center Rakeem Christmas’ unique name and the fact that Christmas’s uniform number is 25.

Fallon, who will take over as the "Tonight Show" host from Jay Leno next year, coined the phrase "A very Rakeem Christmas," which has given the Orange big man a cult following — and Fallon’s phone number.

"Ever since the first time he gave me a shout out, a lot of people have been making these "Very Rakeem Christmas" things," Christmas said. "There have been a lot of pictures and some people at school have been going "Christmas caroling" on their way to classes and stuff. It’s kind of funny and it brings a smile to my face. So as long as people are happy, I am happy.

"I texted (Fallon) congratulations on getting the Jay Leno spot and he said, ’Thank you very much.’ It was kind of cool for me."

Another kind of chip — Wichita State has "Play angry," and the motto for Michigan during its Final Four run has become "Chip on your shoulder." It’s not quite what you think.

Before Michigan’s game against Florida last weekend, assistant coach Bacari Alexander placed a potato chip on each player’s shoulder. It was a less intense way to express that Michigan’s coaches wanted the team to, in effect, play angry.

"He is always coming up with clever schemes to lighten the mood," Michigan freshman Mitch McGary said. "He is very cool about lightening the mood. Coach (John) Beilein and others are so serious before games and (Alexander) comes in and gives us, in a sense, a motivational speech. But he always has a funny aspect to it. That speech was one of the funniest ones of the season."

On the recruiting trail — Landing Trey Burke out of Columbus, Ohio isn’t the only time Michigan coach John Beilein has scored big on a recruit. One of the first times happened in the 1980s when Beilein was coaching Division II Le Moyne and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall was an assistant at D-II Randolph-Macon.

Both coaches were after a player Marshall identified as Andy Beck, though a search for Beck, along with "Le Moyne basketball" produced no corroboration. Whatever the player’s name was, he spurned Marshall and Randolph-Macon in favor of playing for Beilein.

"They were Division II," Marshall said of Le Moyne. "Randolph-Macon was Division II, moving to Division III. I didn’t quite have the cache to offer a scholarship to Andy and he went to Le Moyne. That was the first I knew about Beilein being a good recruiter."

The paths Marshall and Beilein have taken to the Final Four have been similar in other ways but vastly different in others. Beilein has never been an assistant coach, while Marshall worked under coaches for 13 years before becoming coach at Winthrop.

Neither coach is part of a "coaching tree" of a big-name coach, though Beilein said he benefited from a relationship with Jim Boeheim developed while Beilein was coaching smaller schools in upstate New York.

"I admire him for the steps he’s taken," Marshall said of Beilein. "He’s done it without playing, just like myself ... without a father who’s a coach, without name recognition. He’s had to earn it step by step, and he’s done a great job."

Overlooked? — Louisville’s Russ Smith has been one of the hottest players in the tournament. The sophomore guard leads the tournament in scoring with a 26-point average and also picked off 13 steals in the four games.

His season also went well, averaging 18.9 points while being the Cardinals’ top scorer in all but three games. Pretty consistent.

He’s the best player on arguably the nation’s best team.

Yet, his name fell off the Naismith Player of the Year finalists list, and he finished third-team All-American.

“I’ve always been overlooked all my life,” he said.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native noted he wasn’t even ranked high on the recruiting lists when he came out of high school.

“Lists don’t matter,” Smith said. “That’s just someone else’s opinion. What you do is what matters.”

Bobby and the gang — They’re bellies were a little bigger, their memories a little faded.

But Indiana’s national championship team of 1976 was on stage Friday to be honored as the best team in the 75-year history of the NCAA Tournament.

At least that’s the way the fans saw in voting for the honor. Good choice. After all, those Hoosiers went 32-0 and is the last national champ to finish the year undefeated.

Quinn Buckner, a guard on the team, told the gathering much has changed about the tournament and recalled it only took two victories to reach the Final Four.

Wrong. Three. Now it’s four.

“Oh, OK,” Buckner said.

Indiana wrapped up the title by defeating Michigan 86-68.

A regional matchup between No. 1 ranked Indiana and No. 2 Marquette convinced the NCAA basketball committee to start seeding teams.

Buckner was joined on the stage at the Georgia World Congress Center by Jim Crews, Tom Abernathy, Bobby Wilkerson, Scott May and Kent Benson.

And, of course, Bob Knight, the team’s coach.

He looked a tad worn out after working the NIT title game for ESPN the previous. He was wearing the same green sweater he wore on the air.

The topic of whether another team could go undfeated came up.

“I’m hoping it could be Saint Louis,” Abernathy said with a nod toward Crews, who is now the Billikens’ coach.

Reprint – With the Shockers on the regional cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, the magazine saw wide-spread sellouts across the region.

The issue headed to reprint and additional 20,000 copies were available Friday.

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