Bob Lutz: X rarely got time on national stage

11/23/2013 3:58 PM

11/24/2013 8:01 AM

Xavier McDaniel was the perfect player at an imperfect time for Wichita State.

His bald head exuded charisma and fit perfectly with his style as a fierce rebounder unafraid to battle the biggest and the baddest that basketball had to offer during his Shocker career from 1981-85, a career that included so much in the way of personal accomplishment but an NCAA roadblock to team successes.

X-Man was a super hero without a cape to Wichita State basketball fans and a hated villain to every team and fan base he crushed.

Wichita State fans adored McDaniel, who arrived from Columbia, S.C. He wanted to stay at home and attend South Carolina, but the Gamecocks backed off on recruiting him because of his spotty academic record.

“Half of the time I didn’t go to class and half of the time I didn’t do the work that was required,” McDaniel told a Boston Celtics website in 2005. “I didn’t struggle because I didn’t know the material. I struggled because I didn’t do the work that was required.”

It’s almost unfathomable that McDaniel, who exerted so much effort and energy as a basketball player, would scoff at classroom work. But his failure to connect with South Carolina turned out to be a blessing for Wichita State, where he became a consensus All-American.

It can be argued whether McDaniel is the greatest player in Wichita State history. It cannot be disputed that he is the fiercest.

With South Carolina out of the picture, McDaniel took recruiting trips to Clemson and Memphis State. But he was smitten after his visit to Wichita State, then coached by Gene Smithson. The Shockers had been to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament the previous season and returning players Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston and Tony Martin, among others, were bound and determined to lead WSU even farther.

The addition of McDaniel and two McDonald’s All-America freshmen from the Wichita City League, Aubrey Sherrod and Greg Dreiling, lifted the level of anticipation.

Just one problem: The Shockers were ineligible for postseason play in 1981-82 and 1982-83 because of NCAA probation. That meant a 23-6 team, then one that went 25-3, stayed home during March Madness. It was utter madness.

By the time Wichita State became eligible for the tournament again, Carr and Levingston were gone. So was Dreiling, who transferred to Kansas. McDaniel and Sherrod did what they could, but the Shockers slipped to 18-12 during their junior seasons.

And as McDaniel was becoming the first player in college basketball history to lead the country in scoring (27.2 points) and rebounding (14.8), his team was going 18-13 and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Georgia, 67-59 after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

It’s bizarre and more than a little unfair that a player as great as McDaniel, the Shockers’ career rebounding leader and No. 2 scorer, never got to show off his wares in only one NCAA Tournament game.

Meanwhile, Elvin Hayes, the former Houston All-American who is being inducted with McDaniel into the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday night in Kansas City, Mo., played in 13 NCAA Tournament games, including national championship losses to UCLA in 1967 and 1968.

McDaniel and Hayes were similar players — tough, rugged rebounders with the ability to score. Hayes was one of my favorite players when I was a kid and still ranks as the No. 11 scorer and No. 15 rebounder in NCAA history despite playing in an era in which freshmen weren’t eligible. He averaged 31 points and 17.2 rebounds during his Cougars career.

McDaniel, at 6-foot-8, was shorter than Hayes, who packed 235 pounds. McDaniel was listed at 205, which is astounding. I could swear the X-Man’s thighs weighed 205. He had muscles popping up in places that humans aren’t supposed to have them.

McDaniel was a physical specimen who could create a rage. Yet he was probably the only player who could soothe the angst and anger of Wichita State fans over the NCAA sanctions that arrived with, but not because of, McDaniel.

As great as McDaniel was as a Shocker, he will always elicit a “what if” reaction amongst those who remember how glorious and frustrating his years at Wichita State were. His timing as a Shocker couldn’t have been worse.

He never complained, though. And if he was frustrated, it was opponents who paid the price.

McDaniel’s exasperated foes needed a battering ram to keep McDaniel off the boards. He put the “put” in put-back thanks to his relentless attack of the offensive boards. And as he gained more experience, X-Man developed an X-Factor, an outside shooting range that served him well during a 12-year NBA career in which he averaged 15.6 points and 6.1 rebounds.

Nearly 30 years later, McDaniel creates a spark every time he walks into Koch Arena. He was around last season’s Final Four team some and those WSU players couldn’t stop talking about him, though none saw him at his NBA best during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

They just know he’s the X-Man, with that patented bald head and a brow that scowls. When the X-Man cometh, it’s best to stop what you’re doing and pay attention.

Still.

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