After beating Pittsburgh, Wichita State associate head coach Chris Jans told Malcolm Armstead to get him to Los Angeles, past No. 1 Gonzaga, for the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
Armstead wanted Jans to think bigger.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘L.A.? We’re going to Atlanta,’ ” Jans said. “It gave me chill bumps. At that point, I thought, ‘They believe.’ ”
Armstead will tell you he believed all the way back in the summer. He saw last season’s team win the Missouri Valley Conference title and lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He looked at the players coming back, and the newcomers, and started telling teammates to think Final Four. No matter that WSU last went to the Final Four in 1965 and hadn’t been close since 1981.
“The sky is the limit for him, no matter what, and he’s always going to be optimistic,” freshman Fred VanVleet said. “It’s all coming true.”
Armstead, a 6-foot senior guard, is playing a large role in making it come true. He earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the West Regional and averages a team-leading 15.5 points — despite below-average shooting — 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and two steals in four NCAA games.
“I came in June … and he brought (the Final Four) up and told us to be more focused in practice and whatever coaches say, just do, because it’s for the better of the team,” junior Chadrack Lufile said. “He’s a senior. Hearing things like that from him really motivated us to be more attentive to coach and more attentive to what’s going on.”
Understand that Armstead is one of WSU’s chattiest players. Even if his teammates leaned toward skepticism in the summer, they remember the talk.
“Whether you’re listening or not, he’s going to talk,” VanVleet said. “Nobody was arguing with him about it, but it was like ‘OK, that’s Malcolm.’ He could talk about anything.”
Armstead is getting that chance during the tournament. His play and his story make him irresistible.
On the court, he leads WSU’s offense and frustrates defenders with his quirky, left-handed drives and his pop-up three-pointers. When La Salle threatened the Shockers in the Sweet 16 game, Armstead’s nine-point response kept them in control.
His story of coming to WSU gets even more attention. He transferred after two seasons at Oregon, a move he calls a business decision, and reunited at WSU with assistant coach Greg Heiar, who coached him at Chipola (Fla.) College for one season.
“Like coaches leave programs for business, for a better situation, I left for a better situation,” he said. “Nothing against (Oregon coach Dana Altman). He’s a great coach. I still talk to him.”
WSU didn’t have a scholarship, so he took out loans and worked at Lubbers Auto Group in Cheney as a runner. He is counting on professional basketball to pay off the loans. Working at Lubbers paid off in other ways. He drove cars from lot to lot, and washed and detailed them.
“I learned how to balance tires, rotate tires, oil changes,” he said. “I never knew any of that.”
Armstead practiced with the Shockers, sometimes missing sessions when work demanded it. From his experience that season, he grew confident the 2012-13 Shockers could do big things. As a senior — one of the few Shockers with significant NCAA Division I experience — he wanted to make sure his teammates knew. He came to WSU desperately wanting to taste the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
“You got to dream it and then you go out and make it happen,” he said. “Seeing this group, and knowing my ability, and working as hard as I did and seeing other players work as hard as they did, it helped us out believing.”
Armstead is not the only senior who made high expectations a standard over the summer. Guard Demetric Williams, WSU’s lone four-year senior, remembers talking with Carl Hall about their mark on the program.
The 2012 seniors — Toure Murry, David Kyles, Garrett Stutz, Ben Smith and Joe Ragland — won the MVC title and returned the Shockers to the Big Dance for the first time since 2006. The 2012 Shockers, who lost to VCU in the second round, combined good defense with one of the nation’s most efficient offenses.
Williams, Hall and Ehimen Orukpe — all seniors — wanted to use defense as their trademark.
“I felt like our legacy could be even more,” Williams said. “So we’ve got to put in the work, we’ve got to focus real hard and get everybody on the same page. Use our athleticism and our quickness and our defense that we focus on and apply it to this team even more.”