Among players participating at the Final Four, few have taken a more indirect path to reach college basketball’s premier stage than Wichita State point guard Malcolm Armstead.
His journey from high school hero to unquestioned leader of a team with national title hopes has involved stops in four states, at three colleges and one car dealership.
At first, Armstead’s path to playing point guard for a Final Four team was blocked by the lack of an NCAA scholarship. Once he had one at Oregon, he gave it back to walk on at Wichita State after a coaching change within the Ducks’ program.
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall recalled the stunning phone call he received from Armstead that led the Florence, Ala., native to reunite with Wichita State assistant Greg Heiar, who coached Armstead at Chipola College in Marianna, Fla.
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“We flat out told him we don’t have a scholarship,” Marshall said. “But he said, ‘I’ll take out loans. I’ll do what I need to do, maybe get a part-time job.’ We helped him with that. But this kid paid his way, took out loans, went into debt. The reason was, he said, ‘I just want to win. I want to go to the NCAA Tournament and win.’”
Marshall called it “very rare” for a transfer to be willing to foot his own expenses for the opportunity to play the next season when a scholarship opened. Especially one as talented as Armstead, who was selected as the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring 14 points, grabbing seven rebounds, handing out three assists and making three steals in the team’s 70-66 upset of second-seed Ohio State that secured Wichita State’s first Final Four appearance since 1965.
Armstead, a senior, called his departure from Oregon a “business decision” after playing the 2010-11 season under coach Dana Altman, who replaced the fired Ernie Kent, the Ducks’ coach who signed Armstead. At Wichita State, he knew he would be comfortable playing for Marshall, who recruited him out of the junior college where he played for Heiar, a Shockers assistant since May 2011.
The decision meant working part time at Lubbers Auto Group in Cheney, Kan., and taking out student loans to cover expenses during the 2011-12 school year, when Armstead practiced with the scout team while waiting for the starting point guard, Joe Ragland, to graduate.
“As far as the fees and bills, it was tough,” Armstead said during Friday’s media day at the Georgia Dome, where Wichita State (30-8) will meet Louisville (33-5) in Saturday’s semifinals. “Sometimes, I had to miss practice to go to work to be able to make some money so I could pay tuition. But it was easy for me to choose Wichita State. I’m a winner. I wanted to compete. Leaving [Oregon], coming here. You’ve got to take gambles in life and this paid off.”
Teammates, in particular, are excited by the contributions Armstead has made in his lone season of eligibility at the school while helping the Shockers reach the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. Armstead (6-foot, 205 pounds), the only Shocker who has started all 38 games this season, leads Wichita State in minutes played (28.6), assists (3.9) and steals (1.9). He ranks third in scoring (10.9), second in free throw percentage (80.3) and first in leadership.
“He’s our floor general. He sets the tone and he gets things going,” said forward Cleanthony Early, the team’s leading scoring (13.7). “He sees everything.”
Forward Carl Hall said: “I don’t know what we’d be if we didn’t have Malcolm . He’s our quarterback.”
Marshall predicted Armstead eventually will profit from his business decision to join the Wichita State program because of the way he has led the team in the NCAA Tournament. In the Shockers’ four tournament games, Armstead has led the team in scoring (15.5) and assists (3.8). He’s been willing to take, and make, the high-pressure shots, a trait he has displayed since November, when his jumper with 3.8 seconds remaining sealed a 53-51 victory at Virginia Commonwealth, an eventual No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“He is just dynamic, the way he runs a team and takes care of the basketball,” Marshall said. “I know he’s a pro. I don’t know what level. I don’t know if an NBA team’s going to give him a look. But he’s going to make some money with this run in the NCAA Tournament. He’s just a tremendous, positive leader in our locker room and on the court.”
As he reflected Friday on his circuitous college journey from Alabama to Florida to Oregon and, finally, to Kansas, Armstead said he is thrilled to finally be in the Final Four spotlight. Even if he wasn’t sure where he was headed when he called Marshall about transferring to Wichita State.
“When I found out it was in Kansas, the first thing that came to mind was the Wizard of Oz, like Dorothy,” Armstead said. “That was the only thing I really knew about it. But I’m glad I’m here. We don’t have a football team, so this is the face of the athletic program. This is a great experience. And we’re making the most of our opportunity.”