They featured a starting lineup of small town kids that played some of their best basketball on the biggest stage.
It’s been 50 years, and Kansas State’s still trying to get back to where the 1963-64 team last took it.
That team was the last in school history to make the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. And since, only a handful have even made it as far as the Elite Eight.
On Saturday, K-State recognized the achievements of its last Final Four team at halftime of the men’s game against West Virginia, as 14 members of the team made the trip to Manhattan for a weekend reunion as part of a Wildcats Legends Weekend.
The members of the team present included Dick Barnard, Larry Berger, Bill Gettler, Joe Gottfrid, Tom Haas, Jim Hoffmann, Max Moss, John Olson, Lou Poma, Sammy Robinson, Jeff Simons, Roger Suttner, Larry Weigel and head coach Tex Winter.
In 1964, the Wildcats posted a 20-5 regular season record, including a 12-2 mark in the Big Eight on the way to advancing to the NCAA tournament.
During the season, the Wildcats had not only won the Big Eight title, but also won the Big Eight Holiday title, and beat rival-Kansas twice as part of a 13-game winning streak.
It was a K-State team led by Willie Murrell, a 6-foot-6 senior forward who averaged a double-double that season — 22.3 points, 11-1 rebounds — and was backed up by a group of players that held their own in terms of scoring and rebounding.
Murrell, whose jersey was retired at K-State in 2009, was unable to attend the weekend reunion for health reasons.
Murrell was backed by fellow starters in Moss, Robinson, Suttner and Simons, all who hailed from small towns.
“We were all from small towns, that was the case with our starting five,” said Simons, who averaged 8.6 points and 5.1 rebounds that season. “Willie Murrell from Taft (Oklahoma); Max Moss, Hoxie; Jeff Simons, Eudora; Roger Suttner, Ridgeway, Illinois; Sammy Robinson, the metropolis of Parsons — all small towns, yet we were programmed, perfectly programmed by Tex Winter. He did a masterful job with us.”
In the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats opened with a 64-60 win over Texas-El Paso in Wichita’s Leavitt Arena, getting 24 points from Murrell, while Suttner scored 16 and Robinson, the team captain, chipped in 14.
In the Midwest Regional Final, the Wildcats matched up with the host Shockers, grabbing an early 13-point halftime lead and holding on to win, 94-86. Murrell led the way with 28, while four others added double-figure scoring, too. Suttner had 16, Simons had 14, and Robinson and Moss each scored 11.
It serves as one of the most memorable games for the team, as they went on Wichita State’s home court, and came away with the win.
“Nobody gave us much of a chance,” Simons said. “They never got a chance to cheer, we led by 18 and won by eight, but we won going away. We had about 200 fans, all the rest were Wichita State, and they never got a chance to cheer.”
Suttner also remembers the Shockers being the odds-end favorites to win the game, making it that much better.
“Wichita was supposed to be quite a bit better than we were, most of the people there were pulling for them,” he said. “We beat them at home, which made it even better.”
Moss said the win over Wichita State sort of fell in line with the way things happened for K-State that season.
“We kind of felt like we were a team of destiny,” he said. “We started out totally unranked, we won at least four games in the Big Eight by overtime, we ended up going to Wichita to play against the Shockers in the Midwest Regional, and we were not given much hope, and we came through and won that game.”
Simons said looking back, it’s clear that Winter had the team playing at its best at the right time of the season.
“We were up and down, we lost some games, but at the end of the year, when you’re supposed to be playing at your best, we were at our best,” he said. “We peaked, and we had great confidence.”
It was in the National Semi-final that the Wildcats met their match, falling to eventual National Champion UCLA, 90-84. It was the second time K-State lost to the Bruins that season, losing a regular season game at Allen Fieldhouse, 77-74.
K-State played without a healthy Suttner, who was suffering from a 103-degree temperature while battling the flu. To this day, he wonders if being healthy could have changed the outcome of the game.
“I didn’t contribute much because I wasn’t feeling good, I had the flu,” he said. “I don’t know if I was in better shape if we might have come out and won that, but that’s how it works.”
It would go on to be a monumental win for UCLA and coach John Wooden, who won its first title in school history that season. And of course as the well-known story of the Bruins program under Wooden goes, they went on to win nine more with him at the helm, including seven straight from 1967-73.
“We still feel to the day that we should have beaten UCLA,” Moss said. “We lost by three the first game and the last game we lost by six. They were undefeated and just ran over Duke in the championship, and we were kind of a Cinderella team. We were (seeded) 14th and really felt like we had a chance.”
K-State trailed by just two at halftime with the Bruins. Murrell chipped in a hefty 29 point-performance, Simons scored 24 and Ron Paradis finished with 10 points.
The Wildcats would go on to lose the third-place game, 100-90, to Michigan, with Murrell scoring 20 in the final game of his K-State career.
Simons said returning to Manhattan this weekend, and seeing many of his former teammates, and the still-new Basketball Training Facility is a wonderful experience.
“It’s all changed,” he said of Manhattan. “And some of them I haven’t seen in 50 years, some of them I didn’t recognize at first, but they have all their memories, and you can’t take their memories away.”
Since that season, K-State has made it to the Elite Eight just a few times, first in 1972, and lastly in 2010.
“I really, at that point in time, never realized how big a deal it truly was,” Moss said. “Of course it’s much bigger now than it was in those days, but it was quite an experience. You hate to say its been 50 years. We’ve been close, but to get there, you’ve got to have a lot of things fall in place.”