The game had been sold out since December 1. There were 17,500 in the stands and countless other thousands had to be content with the television and radio accounts which blanketed the state of Kansas. The phenomenon was easy to understand. As soon as the season had started, it had been apparent that the University of Kansas and Kansas State College had two of the very best basketball teams in the country and that the conference title and quite possibly the national title would be at stake when they met. It is a rare thing for two such excellent teams to come from schools only 80-odd miles apart, and proud Kansans were well aware of the fact.
They were aware, too, that K-State Coach Tex Winter had a considerable number of problems to wrestle with as game time approached—all of which revolved around the person of Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas' 7-foot center. In the two years Chamberlain has bestrode the collegiate basketball scene, every rival coach has worried himself gray trying to decide how to defend his basket against Wilt's close-in shooting and dunking, and how to run an offense past Wilt's umbrellalike defense. But what few have ever appreciated is the fact that Kansas Coach Dick Harp has had his own problems.
For two years now, Harp has approached every single game with almost nothing to gain and everything to lose. If Kansas won, neither Harp nor the other members of the team would be credited with much more than a friendly assist; if Kansas lost, Harp knew he'd be berated for not using Chamberlain properly, and the rest of the team would be censured for not feeding the ball properly or sufficiently to Wilt so that he could put it away. In addition to this normal—but wholly inaccurate—second-guessing, Harp has also borne the weight of much local and statewide opinion to the effect that his predecessor and former boss, Phog Allen, would be doing a better job with Chamberlain. In his 39 years as head coach, Allen did indeed bring much prestige to Kansas basketball. He was also chiefly responsible for recruiting Chamberlain. But it is simple fact that for a long time before Allen was forced to retire because of age, in 1956, Harp, as his assistant, was doing most of the coaching. A sensitive, loyal man, Harp has endured with dignity both the second-guessing and the abuse of Allen partisans, being more concerned with the effect on his players than on himself. He has nursed and cajoled Wilt's fellow players away from any feelings of inferiority that would wreck an essential team effort, and he has devoted many hours to helping Chamberlain overcome the psychological problems which beset this moody young man because of his spectacular size. For his part, Chamberlain has taken every Kansas defeat—especially last year's one-point loss to North Carolina in the NCAA final round—as a direct reflection upon him personally. He simply did not expect Kansas to lose any game in which he appeared, and this season he is determined they will not. His play has improved considerably, though he is still nowhere near as effective on the offensive backboards as he is on defense, and his outside shooting remains subpar. Here is one answer to the second-guessing of Harp. Many fans have wondered why, when the opposing team puts two men on Wilt, Harp does not urge his other players to do more outside shooting. The facts are that this year he does not have any good outside shooters and that Chamberlain will not control the offensive boards if the shots are missed.
Harp came up to the State game fully prepared to play to his strength—namely, Chamberlain—almost exclusively, which was the only sensible course he could take.
Up the Kaw River at K-State, Tex Winter had thought through his own strategy by much the same logical route but had reached a surprising conclusion. Winter agreed that this year's Kansas team was considerably weaker, in personnel other than Wilt, than last year's. For that very reason, he felt it was a more effective group. " Kansas," he said, "has almost no choice but to play to Wilt this year and that's the way they've been trained. The result is they're very, very good at it—much better than last year's bunch, who were better ballplayers individually and therefore did many other things than just feed the big fellow."
Did it follow that K-State would put two men on Wilt? Surprisingly, no. Winter has always believed that his team should play its own style for every game, the style best suited to its personnel, and not try to concoct a special defense to contain a particular player. "In the first place," he said last week, "if we dream up a tricky plan against Wilt, we wouldn't have enough time to practice it. Then, if it doesn't work, we're licked psychologically; we have nothing else to fall back on. I still insist we're much better off to play this Chamberlain straightaway, man-for-man, concede him 30 points but make him work for them. Don't give him the easy ones, try to box him out under the boards. On offense, we'll try to get Kansas to play us the same way. They'll start by zoning us, but we'll try to force them into a man-for-man situation."
What this boils down to in actual play is that Winter planned to put his center, 6-foot-9 Jack Parr, on Chamberlain with normal help from his K-State teammates. In the unlikely event that Kansas was slow bringing the ball upcourt K-State would try a simple zone. The flaw here was that Parr, otherwise a fine defensive man, has a tendency to pick up fouls on small, foolish errors, and fouling out against Wilt has become an occupational hazard for rival players. When K-State was on offense, Winter hoped to force Kansas to put Chamberlain, in turn, on Parr. He'd do this by having Parr shoot from outside, near the top of the key, a good spot for him, and hope Wilt would come out after him. The advantage Winter would gain is that his two other big men—Bob Boozer and Wally Frank, both 6 feet 8 inches—would far outsize their Kansas guards. If, instead, Wilt kept to his usual defensive spot, covering a zone around the basket, he'd be able to block many of the close-in shots of all three big K-Staters and control the backboards.
Winter also had his second-guessers ready to pounce and, admittedly, for a good reason. K-State had already played Chamberlain straightaway—and lost. This happened twice last season and once this season in the Big Eight tournament. So, as Winter himself put it before the game: "If we lose again, our people will probably say they don't mind the loss so much but why didn't we try something different this time?"
As it turned out, Winter's plan worked out well—almost too well. When K-State was on offense, it did force Kansas to play them man-for-man, but the Kansas man-for-man defense was much better than its zone. Kansas tried the zone early in the game and K-State took an 11-point lead against it. On defense, Parr, with the normal anticipated help from Boozer, held Chamberlain to 25 points. And Boozer, shooting spectacularly, was high man with 32, though he had very few easy shots. K-State won in double overtime, 79-75, a truly memorable game. In the two overtime periods the lead seesawed between the teams until the last two minutes.
Tex Winter did not have to worry about his second-guessers. The most rabid State fans could hardly have asked for a better effort, and Winter could not have expected better execution of his plans. But Dick Harp was undoubtedly in for a rough time from the Allen supporters. He does not deserve it. Kansas was beaten by a better team, one which may well be the best in the nation.