The Shockers are making the run that McDaniel never could at Wichita State when he played there from 1981 to 1985.
The toughest alum of the toughest team left in the men’s NCAA tournament needs a mushy moment. Excuse Xavier McDaniel. He’ll get back to his rugged reputation in a minute. Right now, though, his Wichita State pride is softening him.
“They’re living a dream for me,” says the former Sonics forward, who starred for the Shockers from 1981-1985. “I think it’s a great thing, and it’s been a long time coming.”
That’s about as close to tear-shedding as it will get for the X-Man, one of the baddest men ever to wear green and gold. He answers his phone in Blythewood, S.C., where he runs his own business, 34 X Man LLC, which does everything from home building to janitorial work to trucking services. And for the next 30 minutes, McDaniel, 49, is at his blunt best, telling all and doing so with his trademark Southern flair.
Mostly, he wants to express his appreciation for this Wichita State team. The Shockers are in the Final Four for the first time since 1965. They don’t have to exist in the shadow of the storied Kansas Jayhawks this week. Their own basketball tradition is being showcased, and if you go back to McDaniel’s college days, then you understand why this triumph feels like redemption to some of the older Shockers.
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Thirty-two years ago, Wichita State advanced to the Elite Eight. The 1980-81 Shockers were loaded with NBA talent, including Cliff Levingston, Antoine Carr and Greg Dreiling. And the Shockers were expected to be even better during the 1981-82 season with McDaniel leading a nationally ranked recruiting class that ensured Wichita State would be among the most talented teams in the country. Coach Gene Smithson had put together a crew capable of winning the national title.
But in 1982, Wichita State was put on probation, including a two-year postseason ban, because of recruiting violations of former assistant coaches dating to the mid-1970s. As is often the case, current players paid for sins of coaches long departed.
McDaniel didn’t make the NCAA tournament until his senior season, even though the Shockers had a combined 48-9 record his first two seasons at Wichita State.
“That was very hard to deal with, because we didn’t do anything, but we were the ones punished,” McDaniel said. “That’s why this team means so much to us now.”
Carr and McDaniel visited the current Shockers earlier this season and left them with some words that have turned into the team’s mantra: “Play angry.”
With a physical style, timely shooting and the excellent coaching of Gregg Marshall, the Shockers haven’t just played angry. They’ve left their opponents, including Gonzaga, angry after each tournament game.
Wichita State has been to the tournament six times since its 1981 Elite Eight run, and the Shockers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2006. But before this Final Four appearance, many don’t remember much about the Shockers other than McDaniel’s exploits. As a senior in 1984-85, he averaged 27.2 points and 14.8 rebounds, becoming the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding.
Lenny Wilkens and the Sonics drafted him No. 4 overall in 1985, and the X-Man averaged 20 points and seven rebounds per game in five-plus seasons as Seattle’s highly skilled enforcer.
“Trust me when I tell you that there are only three cities in my mind: my hometown — Columbia, S.C. — Wichita and Seattle,” McDaniel said. “Man, I love Seattle. I played in other cities during my NBA career, but I’m all Seattle SuperSonics.
“I don’t care. I would never, ever, ever go to Oklahoma City (where the Sonics relocated five years ago). I don’t care how many times they invite me. I’ll hold my word to that until the day I die.”
Like nearly everyone who loves the Sonics, McDaniel has been watching the fight between Seattle and Sacramento over the Kings franchise. He wants a franchise back in Seattle desperately, but he hates the idea that Sacramento might have to be robbed for that to happen. McDaniel still hopes for expansion, even though NBA commissioner David Stern says expansion isn’t an option right now.
“No matter what happens, I’m with the fans, and I’m always going to be with the fans,” says McDaniel, whose daughter, Xylina, is a freshman forward at North Carolina who was recently named the Atlantic Coast Conference freshman of the year.
On Saturday, McDaniel plans to be with his Wichita State fans. He’ll make the trip from South Carolina to Atlanta to watch his team play Louisville in Final Four. He expects to watch the game with at least two of his former teammates, Carr and Levingston.
“We’re not done yet,” McDaniel says. “We have unfinished work.”
Living vicariously, McDaniel has a dream without a conclusion. So he’ll close his eyes and let the fairy tale continue.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.