WICHITA, Kan. — After beating Pittsburgh, Wichita State associate head coach Chris Jans told Malcolm Armstead to get him to Los Angeles, past No. 1 Gonzaga, for the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
Armstead wanted Jans to think bigger.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘L.A.? We’re going to Atlanta,’” Jans said. “It gave me chill bumps. At that point, I thought, ‘They believe.’”
Armstead will tell you he believed all the way back in the summer. He saw last season’s team win the Missouri Valley Conference title and lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He looked at the players coming back, and the newcomers, and started telling teammates to think Final Four. No matter that WSU last went to the Final Four in 1965 and hadn’t been close since 1981.
“The sky is the limit for him, no matter what, and he’s always going to be optimistic,” freshman Fred VanVleet said. “It’s all coming true.”
Armstead, a 6-foot senior guard, is playing a large role in making it come true. He earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the West Regional and averages a team-leading 15.5 points — despite below-average shooting — 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and two steals in four NCAA games.
“I came in June … and he brought (the Final Four) up and told us to be more focused in practice and whatever coaches say, just do, because it’s for the better of the team,” junior Chadrack Lufile said. “He’s a senior. Hearing things like that from him really motivated us to be more attentive to coach and more attentive to what’s going on.”
Understand that Armstead is one of WSU’s chattiest players. Even if his teammates leaned toward skepticism in the summer, they remember the talk.
“Whether you’re listening or not, he’s going to talk,” VanVleet said. “Nobody was arguing with him about it, but it was like ‘OK, that’s Malcolm.’ He could talk about anything.”