1983 Cougars: A Team That Came Together
March 12, 2007
Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a four-part series chronicling the Washington State men's basketball team's four trips to the NCAA Tournament in 1941, 1980, 1983 and 1994.
2007 will mark the fifth trip to the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship for Washington State. The Cougars were selected as the No. 3 seed in the East Region and will play No. 14 seed Oral Roberts in a first round game at Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 15.
Today's Feature: With the exception of the 1917 and 1941 teams, the 1983 Cougars were the most successful team in program history, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was a team perceived as having no stars, but that may have been their greatest attribute.
By Amanda Piechowski
Washington State Athletic Media Relations
'Washington State is a team of many heroes, yet a team with no stars.'
It was no easy journey in 1983 for the Washington State men's basketball team as the Cougars seemed to constantly be fighting for their place in the national spotlight. This quote, taken from a March 1983 press release, describes a Cougar team that came together to earn their second NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.
At the start of the 1983 season, WSU was ranked no higher than fourth in several preseason polls, but how could you blame anyone? After making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 39 years in 1980, the Cougars finished dead last in the Pac-10 with a 3-15 conference record in 1981. The team did improve to a fifth-place finish in 1982 after mustering 10 conference wins but still seemed to be a far cry from the 22-win campaign just two years earlier.
The 1983 season looked as if it would pan out much like the previous two years as WSU started out 3-2 in its first five non-conference matches, including a 62-58 overtime loss at Idaho and a 61-58 loss at Montana. The Cougars weren't playing anyone particularly noteworthy, but they still couldn't win games, so why expect anyone to believe in the program again?
Starting December 14, however, people slowly started taking notice.
Not only did the Cougars start winning games, but they also began living up to this 'team with no stars' mindset.
First, senior forward Steve Harriel scored 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field to lead the Cougars to an 87-78 victory over Pacific Lutheran in Pullman. A few days later, senior Guy Williams paced WSU to an 80-51 win against Eastern Montana as he scored 20 points and picked up 11 rebounds. Then Chris Winkler, a sophomore guard, hit a career-high 20 points against Montana State for a lopsided 96-64 Cougar victory, their third straight win.
Suddenly the Cougars were clicking -- clicking so well that they would go on to own the third-largest win streak in the nation, winning 12 straight games that included a 72-70 double overtime, come-from-behind victory over Washington.
In all 12 games, at least two WSU players were scoring in double figures and, in 10 of those games, someone scored at least 20 points. Guy Williams scored a school-record 43 points against Idaho State, and Steve Harriel totaled 32 against Arizona State, just to name a few of WSU's eye-opening performances. As a whole, WSU shot over 50 percent from the field 10 times.
Then Williams, one of the nation's premier scorers, suffered a season-ending injury doing nothing more than dribbling and spinning past a defender against Oregon, Jan. 22. Completely untouched, Williams went down and ended up with a torn ACL and a permanent seat on the sidelines, leaving the team to wonder how they would be able to keep up their success without Williams, who had been averaging 18.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
Soon they found their answer. Very simply, the other Cougars began stepping up and filling in where needed.
Sophomore Chris Winkler, who had scored just three points as a freshman, emerged almost out of nowhere. He scored 13 points against Oregon the day Williams went down and would score in double-digits seven more times during the season. He led the Cougars in scoring with 15 points against California in a 56-54 WSU victory Feb. 26.
Then it was freshman forward Ricky Brown who suddenly found himself a starter. He nailed a free throw to begin a five-point run for WSU, putting the Cougars up by five in overtime against Oregon State, Feb. 19. At the end of the season, he was named to the Pac-10 All-Rookie team.
Brian Pollard earned a starting nod late in the season and responded with a career-high 21 points against both USC (March 5) and UCLA (March 7), where he tipped in a missed shot by Winkler at the buzzer for the 70-68 win against the Bruins.
It was quite the ride for players, coaches and fans alike. Of the Cougars' 28 regular season games, 15 were decided by five points or less with WSU winning 11 of those close matches. WSU took an opponent to overtime on four different occasions, including the one double-overtime match against Washington. The Cougars finished their conference schedule shooting a school record 50.3 percent from the field.
WSU won seven of its eight final regular season games and finished second in the Pac-10 with an overall record of 22-6 and a 14-4 conference record. The Cougars were on their way to Boise and the first round of the 1983 NCAA Tournament to take on Weber State.
Entering the game, many felt the Cougars and the Wildcats were a very close matchup. While Weber State would probably have an advantage on defense, WSU appeared to have a stronger offense.
'We're comparable in terms of style and lacking that overly dominate player who would control a game', said Weber State Head Coach Neil McCarthy in a March 1983 article in the Lewiston Morning Tribune.
But in the end, it was the Cougars who outplayed the Wildcats and advanced to the second round with a 62-52 win.
'I just feel for 40 minutes we played better defense and rebounded better,' said WSU Head Coach George Raveling in a postgame interview.
And in true Cougar fashion, no one player stood out. Craig Ehlo led in scoring with 18 points while Steve Harriel contributed 12 rebounds in the win. Raveling played 12 of his men, seven of which scored.
Up next for WSU? The fourth-ranked Virginia Cavaliers -- or, more accurately, 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and the rest of the No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers. All the attention rested on how the Cougars would handle Sampson, a three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, never mind the rest of the Virginia team.
'Too much is being made of Ralph's presence,' expressed Raveling at a pregame press conference. 'People forget Virginia has other great players.'
In the end, the Cavaliers defeated the Cougars 54-49. Yet, it was words like 'survived' and 'edged' that described Virginia's victory. As the number one rebound team in the country at the time, they were out-rebounded 33-24 by WSU. Even more impressive, WSU held Sampson to only one field goal attempt in the second half.
'In some ways, we played as close to our ability level as possible,' said Raveling after the game.
And just like that, the season was over. With 23 wins, Raveling's Cougars earned the most wins in a season since 1941 when WSU went 26-6.
WSU's four seniors, Steve Harriel, Craig Ehlo, Aaron Haskins and Guy Williams, left and were drafted into the NBA while Raveling accepted the head coaching position at the University of Iowa.
It has been almost 25 years since WSU made a trip to the NCAA Tournament, but even over the span of two decades, the memory of the 1983 team, its successes and its failures, continues to live on.