LOS ANGELES – Of all the people who bet on Wichita State to reach the 2013 Final Four, no one's gamble paid off bigger Saturday night than Malcolm Armstead's.
Here is a kid who two years ago left a full-ride scholarship at Oregon for a part-time job at a car dealership in Cheney, Kan., all with a hope that he'd play point guard for the Shockers this season. There were no scholarships available at Wichita State, so he took out student loans, put himself in debt all because he thought Gregg Marshall's program provided the best environment for him to play basketball.
To reset that, he thought paying his way at Wichita State, a Missouri Valley Conference member, was a better place for him to play than a full ride at the University of Oregon, a Pac-12 member and Phil Knight's personal philanthropy.
Friday night, Oregon got bounced from the NCAA tournament by Louisville. Less than 24 hours later, Armstead, the Ducks' former point guard, helped Wichita State – the ninth seed out of the West Region – shock second-seeded Ohio State 70-66 to claim the school's first berth in the Final Four since 1965.
"You gotta take gambles in life, man, and this paid off," Armstead said as he stood on the court at Staples Center with a piece of net tied to his Final Four hat. "A lot of people said I was [crazy]."
One of those was his father, Jesse, who understood why Malcolm wanted to leave Oregon, where he had been a starter. He wasn't happy there and like any father would, Jesse just wanted his son to be happy.
Still, it was Wichita State – not the Sisters of the Poor, but an undeniable demotion.
"I said, 'Wichita? Man, that's going from the big time down to a mid-major,' " Jesse explained. "And he said, 'Daddy, that means I'm gonna have to work harder. I gotta get a team that I can develop and roll with.' "
What it meant for Malcolm was moving to Kansas. There he found a bunch of guys on a bench who were as hungry as he. Wichita State graduated its six leading scorers from a year ago, meaning all the guys playing now were right there next to Malcolm on the bench as he waited out his year of ineligibility for transferring.
With no scholarship available, Armstead paid his bills by working as a runner at Lubbers Cars. He did that part time for a year and practiced with the Shockers.
When he finally got into the lineup this year, he made an immediate impact. In just the third game of the season, Armstead nailed a jumper with 3.8 seconds left to lift Wichita State over Virginia Commonwealth, a five seed in this year's tournament.
"He's dynamic in the way he runs a team and the way he takes care of the basketball," Marshall said. "We don't win at VCU early in the year [without him]. That was the first time I thought, 'Wow, this team has a chance.' "
For the past two weeks as the tournament has been whittled down from 68 teams, the Shockers have flown almost entirely under the radar, mostly because of Florida Gulf Coast. But all along, Armstead has been confident.
After Wichita State's first-round win over Pittsburgh, assistant coach Chris Jans told him he was looking forward to a nice long stay in Los Angeles, site of the regional final.
"L.A.?" Armstead replied. "I want to go to Atlanta."
For the first 30 minutes of Saturday night's game, the Shockers were on cruise control. They'd frustrated Deshaun Thomas into a brutal shooting night, made Aaron Craft look less than mediocre and showed anyone who was watching how a ragtag group of former junior college players and D-I transfers could come together to create something special.
With just 11 minutes remaining, they'd built a 20-point lead, thanks in part to 14 from Armstead. And then Cleanthony Early, one of those JUCO transfers who'd been frustrating Thomas all night, went down in a heap.
It happened after a made basket when he was harmlessly turning to run back on defense and rolled his left ankle. He was already waving to the trainers before he even hit the floor. It looked bad, but with the Shockers comfortably in front, not a big deal, right?
With Early out, Thomas caught fire, scoring 10 points to launch Ohio State on a 23-6 run. For the second time in less than 24 hours, a team from Kansas was blowing a double-digit, second-half lead to a Big Ten school.
The Buckeyes trailed by only three with still more than 2:30 on the clock.
It was all slipping away for Wichita. On the sideline, Marshall was harking back to his days at Winthrop when he'd watched his boys blow a 20-point lead to Notre Dame in the 2007 tournament.
The Buckeyes crowd, dejected for most of the game, was suddenly alive. Not just alive, but raucous.
That is until Tekele Cotton silenced them with a three ball and Fred Van Vleet finally put the game away for good with a floating jumper that hit the rim three times before falling through the net with a minute to play, extending the lead back to six.
These were the boys Armstead had come to Kansas for, the ones who had to dream a little bigger when he showed up on his own dime.
"I don't know what we'd be if we didn't have him," Shockers forward Carl Hall said. "We're just glad we have Malcolm."
After cutting down his piece of the net, Armstead headed over to the stands to share the moment with his parents. They hugged, took pictures, hung around in disbelief.
Los Angeles had been good to them, but now they were heading back home. It's just a three-hour drive from their home in Florence, Ala., to Atlanta. Malcolm's gamble had paid off, even if it's left him still paying student loans.
"That ain't no big deal," Jesse said. "Who's not in debt? These are things that are part of life, and you handle it. … And eventually if you work at something long enough, you overcome 'em."
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