Bob Lutz: Survivors of Shocker lean years have high hopes for Final Four

06/30/2014 7:26 PM

08/06/2014 12:44 AM

If this Final Four Wichita State basketball team plays angry — and it’s as good an explanation as any for this crazy ride — then the Shocker teams circa 1991-2001 were mellow surfer dudes just chilling out.

These Shockers play with an edge.

Those Shockers played with a predisposition of what was likely going to happen. There were some good players during the Mike Cohen-Scott Thompson-Randy Smithson years. Just not enough and nothing ever quite added up.

Except losses.

In the 11 seasons from 1990-91 through 2000-01, Mark Turgeon’s first season, WSU was 126-188 and a miserable 70-126 in the Missouri Valley Conference. They Shockers couldn’t win a road game to save their lives. And home games were a roll of the dice.

I was the WSU beat writer during Cohen’s final season in 1991-92 and for Thompson’s first three seasons. There were a lot of gloomy faces.

But you know what? Many of the players from the gory years, as I call them, are feeling just as excited about Wichita State’s Final Four run as those who played during more successful times.

“I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls and text messages about Wichita State,” said former Shocker forward Michael Wiggins, who played two seasons each for Cohen and Thompson and who lives in Atlanta. “I’ve heard from a lot of people in Wichita, people I don’t even remember to be honest with you.”

Not that Wiggins, or others from the lean years, has tried to forget his time in Wichita. It’s just the opposite. The guys I talked to might not have departed WSU with a lot of wins, but they relish their memories.

“I feel like I’m representing Shocker Nation out here in the Bay Area,” said Patrice Scott, a WSU forward from 1990-93, who works for a digital marketing agency in northern California. “I’m still wearing that black and yellow proudly. I think everybody who attended Wichita State back in those difficult years knew that WSU was serious about basketball and that they liked to win. It just was a matter of the right pieces coming together.”

And they never did. Not for a long, long time.

The Shockers finished in the top half of the Missouri Valley Conference once in those 11 years. They had one All-MVC player, Jason Perez in 2000.

Cohen was fired after an 8-20 season in 1991-92 and four years later Thompson was fired after an 8-21 season. And four years after that, Smithson was fired after a 12-17 season.

“Regardless of what happened there, I enjoyed my time,” said John Smith, a center for the Shockers from 1991-93 who eventually transferred to VCU.

Smith, who played professionally in Europe and has remained in England, got to experience a Final Four with the Rams in 2011. This one with the Shockers is just as special to him.

“This is the kind of stuff that can bring you back together with a lot of your former teammates,” Smith said. “I was just looking at Michael Wiggins’ page on Facebook and he’s got an old picture up there in his Wichita State uniform. Once a Shocker, always a Shocker. I was highly recruited out of high school and that’s the school I chose over everyone else.”

There was a lot of tension around the Shockers during those difficult seasons. Wichita State’s fan base has always been passionate about the basketball program and even at the low ebb, 7,000-or-so fans were showing up regularly at then-Levitt Arena. But they were grumbling more than they were cheering.

The Shockers were coming off mostly successful seasons under Gene Smithson and Eddie Fogler. Some seasons were highly successful. Fans didn’t understand how the bottom dropped out so quickly and players were caught in the middle.

Point guard K.C. Hunt, who came from a highly successful high school program in Ohio where he played for his father, was as frustrated about the circumstances as any player on the teams I covered.

“Being used to winning a lot, the tough part was that we weren’t successful at Wichita State,” said Hunt, the coach at Wilmington (Ohio) College, an NCAA Division III school. “But I definitely had some great moments there and got to meet some really special people. And I got to compete at a really high level of college basketball, which most people don’t get a chance to do.”

Hunt and the others still follow the Shockers. There’s a chance a few of the guys from the tough times will gather in Atlanta this weekend, where they might crash at Wiggins’ place. Only he doesn’t know that yet.

“I’m actually just trying to get Final Four tickets,” Wiggins said. “I’m trying to call a couple of people I know.”

Wiggins’ 9-year-old son is playing in an AAU basketball tournament this weekend and he’s not sure yet what the schedule looks like. If he can, though, he’ll be in the Georgia Dome, supporting a team and university that is special to him.

“Wichita State can do this,” Wiggins said. “They can do it, man. Those guards, I think they match up with Louisville. But that big dude on the inside for Louisville (6-foot-11 Gorgui Dieng) is tough, man. But I think the Shockers can do this.”

It’s a long way to a Final Four from where the WSU program was 20 years ago.

“I joke with people that we were the players who paved the way,” Scott said, laughing.

He can laugh about it now.

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