Notebook: 1974 Final Four team returns to Lawrence

Former Kansas coach Ted Owens gets a hug from athletic director Travis Goff during a halftime ceremony recognizing the 1974 Final Four team on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

When former Kansas men’s basketball coach Ted Owens gets together with his former players, he told the current KU team Friday, “Nobody remembers who the leading scorers were.” Instead, they reflect on what they accomplished together.

One of Owens’ greatest teams in 19 years at KU was reunited for just that sort of reflection in Lawrence on Saturday. The 1973-74 squad got honored on the James Naismith Court at halftime of Saturday’s KU-TCU men’s basketball game for the 50th anniversary of its Final Four run.

“Nobody really cared who took credit,” said guard Tom Kivisto of the squad. “Everybody passed the ball. Everybody played defense.”

Current KU coach Bill Self, who relayed Owens’ message to the team in a pregame interview on the Jayhawk Radio Network, also said Owens is one of the best coaches around at remaining connected with his former players.

“One of the great privileges of coaching is to have a lifetime friendship with those young men that you coach,” Owens said. “And so it was wonderful to see them and their families. It’s always terrific.”

Owens noted that unlike his other Final Four team three years earlier, the 1974 team “never knew who the leading scorer was going to be.” Five players — Danny Knight, Roger Morningstar, Dale Greenlee, Norm Cook and Rick Suttle — averaged between 11.3 and 12.4 points per game. As a testament to their unselfish nature, at one point Kivisto set a single-game record with 18 assists in a game against Nebraska, one that still stands today.

Their path to the Final Four, which included a 23-7 record, 15-2 mark in the Big Eight Conference and tournament victories over Creighton and Oral Roberts, was all the more impressive given they had won just eight games the previous year.

“We had no expectations,” Kivisto said. “We were picked fifth in the Big Eight. And that was our best pick, and what we deserved … and it just came together one game at a time.”

Besides Kivisto, fellow players Morningstar, Greenlee, Tommie Smith, Donnie Von Moore, Reuben Shelton, Bob Emery and Chris Barnthouse were in attendance.

The group did pay tribute to those they have lost in the intervening years, including Cook and Knight. Owens explained that Morningstar has a shot glass bearing each team member’s name at his restaurant.

“And so when we lose one of our teammates and coaches, we take a toast and turn their shot glass over,” Owens said. “And we did that again last night to honor those that we have lost.

“At 94, they keep mine turned on the side.”

Owens compiled a career record of 348-182 while in Lawrence, then spent two years at Oral Roberts before pursuing a variety of opportunities in sports outside of college coaching.

Udeh’s return

The question of whether Allen Fieldhouse would boo a returning Ernest Udeh Jr., who transferred away from KU after one season, occupied a prominent place in social media discourse ahead of Saturday. Many fans suggested that the crowd should remain positive, while some former players took to X to encourage booing.

Ultimately, cheers decidedly outweighed the boos as Udeh was the final TCU starter introduced ahead of the game.

The crowd cheered even more substantially, though, moments later when Hunter Dickinson scored a layup over Udeh to open the game, and booed vociferously when KJ Adams got called for a foul going up against Udeh soon after.

Udeh did not make much of an impact for most of the game, but he hit two free throws to extend TCU’s lead to 75-72 with just under four minutes to go. That effort was overshadowed when he got called for a crucial flagrant foul on Dickinson in the final minute.

“I said something to him before the game,” Self said, “and I told him he played well and hope he does well, and those were two big free throws he hit.”

TCU center Ernest Udeh Jr. (8) a transfer from Kansas, congratulates Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) following the Jayhawks’ 83-81 win on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

High praise

Athletic forwards Emanuel Miller of TCU and Adams of KU, who both starred Saturday, have met plenty of times over the years. Based on their comments postgame, they’ve built plenty of mutual respect along the way. Adams said Miller played a great game, while Miller called Adams a “such a high-character kid.”

“I think he was raised unbelievably,” Miller said. “Throughout the game, me and him were talking, but it’s one of those competition, competitive talks. I’m pushing him, he’s pushing me, and we’re not even on the same team. So I could only imagine what he does for his own team.”

Self said of hearing Miller and Adams talk to each other during the game, “I love that and that’s what this league is all about.”

This and that

Saturday was Kansas’ Team Impact game, in which it once again hosted JP Bemberger, a teenager battling Ewing’s sarcoma who serves as an honorary member of the team.

“It’s super motivating to see what he’s done, everything that he’s dealt with,” KU walk-on forward Dillon Wilhite said in a video played for the occasion.

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