Shocker summer: WSU's first Final Four was for Pete's sake

07/09/2014 9:00 AM

07/09/2014 11:08 AM

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Eagle on Jan. 14, 2007.

Chroniclers of Wichita State basketball history are fond of debating the biggest “What if?” in Shocker history.

What if Dave Stallworth and Nate Bowman had played a full season in 1964-65 instead of using up existing eligibility (Stallworth) or being dismissed because of grades (Bowman) at midseason?

It’s a great question, one full of possibilities. Would the Shockers have won a national championship? They certainly would have had a much better chance.

But there’s another question about that ’65 team: What if the Shockers hadn’t had Kelly Pete?

Here’s the simple answer: No Final Four, not even close. No Missouri Valley Conference championship. No improbable wins over SMU and Oklahoma State in the NCAA Midwest Regional.

Pete, who in 1970 changed his name to Mohammed Sharif, just might be the most underrated player in Wichita State history. Which is hard to fathom, based on his amazing accomplishments during that 1964-65 season.

Sharif was inducted into the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame at halftime of the game against Evansville on Saturday night at Koch Arena.

Better late than never, I suppose. Thanks for finally getting around to inducting one of the best players in Shocker history and the guts of WSU’s only Final Four team.

Sharif was a rock-solid 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. He played defense as if his next meal depended on it. He rebounded, even if it meant coming from 20 feet away, where he was guarding an opponent, to do so.

And he figured out a way to score, although he admits he wasn’t the most gifted offensive talent.

That didn’t stop Sharif from averaging more than 14 points during his career, 17.3 in the Shockers’ Final Four season.

When Stallworth and Bowman left, it appeared as if a promising WSU season would go up in flames.

The 6-7 Stallworth is the greatest player in the school’s history and was averaging 25 points and 12 rebounds when his season ended.

At 6-10, Bowman blocked shots, grabbed rebounds and made baskets.

Without them, WSU was left with a starting five of Sharif, Jamie Thompson, John Criss, Dave Leach and Vernon Smith.

The five had two things in common. First, they were products of Kansas high schools. Second, they were small.

Leach was the tallest at 6-5. But he wasn’t very athletic.

Neither were Thompson, Smith or Criss.

There’s a third thing those five guys had in common, come to think of it. They knew the game.

“We had to come up with a completely different strategy to win games,” said Sharif, who is in the art business in Santa Fe, N.M. “We had to be very methodical, making sure the ball was moved correctly to the right people.’’

With Stallworth and Bowman, the Shockers were proactive. They took the game to their opponents. Without them, Wichita State had to play more efficiently.

“That was probably the one period of my career that I really learned the concept of how to win,” he said. “There are only a few people who really know how to do that. A lot of people know how to play and they can do incredible things. But not everybody knows how to win. We were a handicapped team without Dave and Nate. We were young, small and slow. But the one thing we did have was great shooters.’’

Leach was deadly from the baseline. Thompson could shoot from anywhere but particularly liked the top of the key. Smith and Criss couldn’t be left open. And by that time Sharif, a junior, had figured out how to score by taking the ball to the basket.

Before, his biggest responsibility was to guard the opposing team’s most dangerous offensive guard or forward. He often gave up size, but never moxy.

Now, though, Sharif was called on to be more than he thought he could be.

“That was a very, very tough challenge,” he said. “What we learned from that experience was that even though we were out-manned and out-gunned, we were still able to beat teams that had more talent because we just beat them intellectually.’’

That worked until the Final Four, when the Shockers were crushed by UCLA 108-89 in the national semifinals then lost in the third-place game to Princeton 118-82.

Sharif and Thompson, teammates who led Wichita East to a high school state championship in 1962, combined for 92 points in the two games.

“Jamie was an incredible shooter,” Sharif said of his childhood friend, who died last year at 60. “He had a great eye and he was a great teammate. We went back a long ways.’’

It’s what led up to that Final Four that cements Sharif as a Shocker legend.

“His importance to Shocker basketball is pretty much cut and dried,” Stallworth said. “Everybody we played hated him because he was so tough. He had no fear, whatsoever.’’

WSU went into its final Valley game, against Drake, needing a win or a Bradley victory over St. Louis to wrap up the championship, though the Shockers had already clinched a tie and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Bradley did its part earlier in the day, but the Shockers still beat Drake 76-74 in overtime led by Sharif’s 24 points. His layup with 14 seconds to play in overtime put WSU up by three points.

During a tough 86-81 win over Southern Methodist in the semifinals of the Midwest Regional in Manhattan, Sharif scored 31 points on 12-of-16 shooting and had 12 rebounds. He scored the Shockers’ final three points.

A night later, in the championship game against Oklahoma State, scoring was tougher. The defensive-minded Aggies clamped down on Sharif, but he still made 6 of 8 shots and had 19 points and nine rebounds.

He and the other Shocker starters played all 40 minutes against Oklahoma State, which used only one player off the bench. The tougher team won.

“Without Dave and Nate, my thinking was that we had to re-think how to win games,” Sharif said. “What I came up with was that to keep an opponent from utilizing its power and strength we had to adopt a defensive point of view.’’

It worked until the Final Four, when a weary Shocker team allowed 226 points in back-to-back games.

“We got out of our game plan,” Sharif said. “In a way, everything caught up to us.’’

Maybe so.

But it was an experience the Shockers wouldn’t have had without Sharif.

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