Armstead's winding road to Atlanta
LOS ANGELES -- The hoopla that erupted after Wichita State earned its first Final Four trip since 1965 had finally tapered.
As the mood softened in his team's Staples Center locker room, Shockers point guard Malcolm Armstead -- the West Regional MVP who finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in Saturday's Elite Eight victory over Ohio State -- sat quietly inside his stall and reflected on the tumult of this ride.
The Florence, Ala., native's journey to Atlanta began with problems.
An academic issue forced him to attend junior college for a year after a successful high school career. He eventually landed at Oregon but transferred to Wichita State after two years with the Ducks. Gregg Marshall, however, didn't have a scholarship for him when he arrived. So Armstead worked part time at a car dealership in Wichita, Kan., to pay his own way.
It wasn't easy. Yet Armstead has never questioned his decision to play for the Shockers.
"That just shows my desire and wanting to win," Armstead said following his squad's Elite Eight victory in Los Angeles. "I'm a winner. I wanted to compete. Leaving [Oregon], coming here, and now it's paying off."
Whenever her 10-year-old son would burst into the bedroom at 2 a.m., Priscilla Armstead would try to placate him so she could go back to bed. But he wouldn't unwind.
Another classic middle-of-the-night summer basketball matchup with his older brother, O'Bryant, had been interrupted by a "bad call." And Mom knew the boy wouldn't allow his parents to sleep unless his father, Jesse, would agree to play referee for the feisty one-on-one matchups.
The family still has the whistle that Jesse used to temper the predawn affairs that both toughened and frustrated Armstead.
"He said, 'Come right now, because it's out of control,'" recalled Priscilla, who played college basketball at Ole Miss. "And I'm saying to myself, 'It's just the two of you out there.'"
Armstead loved winning too much to let a questionable call ruin his shot at a victory. The determination that the 23-year-old point guard showcased on the Shockers' run to the Final Four brewed in his backyard. There, Armstead jousted with his siblings and their older friends on a court that lacked the true dimensions of a regulation floor.
The rim was nearly 12 feet off the ground. And free throws were like 3-pointers on that court, according to the lines that Armstead and his brother painted on it.
But the inches that the Shockers standout fought for whenever he faced his bigger brother mattered more than those measurements. The physical games made him scrappier, a quality that has triggered success throughout his athletic career.
By the time he'd reached high school, Armstead had developed a confidence that folks who knew him then and those who know him now acknowledge as the trait that's made him so effective. Armstead believes in Armstead, but it's assuredness more than cockiness.
Jerry Bartley, who runs Alabama Challenge, remembers a specific in-game promise that the AAU program's young talent made a few summers ago.
Armstead's AAU team was down more than 20 points at halftime against an elite Nike squad, but he led a full-court press in the second half, recorded a few steals and guided his squad to a win.
"We won by one," Bartley said. "Malcolm said, 'We're gonna win this game. We just gotta work. We're gonna win this game.'"
He had everything a college coach would want in a point guard -- except the approval of the NCAA's clearinghouse. Instead of starring for a Division I team following an undefeated season at Central Park Christian prep school in Birmingham, Armstead enrolled at Chipola junior college in Marianna, Fla., in 2007.
"I couldn't get the grades through the clearinghouse," he said. "People [back home] thinking I fell off."
Armstead continued to develop as a player and ultimately gained clearance from the NCAA, which permitted Division I programs to begin recruiting him again after a year at Chipola. Former Oregon coach Ernie Kent thought he'd found a gem the first time he saw Armstead play. Kent had coached and recruited Aaron Brooks and Luke Ridnour, who both played in the NBA, so he understood the tools that were necessary for a point guard to compete at an elite level.
Armstead, who joined the Ducks in 2009, had those skills, Kent said.
"He kind of fit the prototype," Kent said. "When we got him, we felt like he was going to be next in line."
After Kent was fired in 2010, Armstead tried to adapt to Dana Altman's system. He averaged 8.6 PPG and 4.4 APG in 2010-11, but he wasn't content.
So he made a "business decision" and left Eugene.
Wichita State had a solid situation for Armstead. Former point guard Joe Ragland was set to graduate after last season, and Armstead was familiar with the coaching staff.
Marshall had recruited him when he was in junior college, and Greg Heiar, now an assistant under Marshall, was Armstead's head coach at Chipola.
Marshall, however, couldn't offer him a scholarship, so Armstead secured student loans and picked up that part-time dealership job to pay for school last year.
"When he called and said he wanted to come, we flat-out told him we don't have a scholarship," Marshall said prior to his team's victory over Ohio State in the Elite Eight. "It's very rare for a guy to transfer and pay his own way, especially out of state, and also from a BCS school. 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.
"He said, 'I just want to win. I want to go to the NCAA tournament and win.' It's gratifying for all of us for different reasons, but that makes me feel good because of the sacrifice that he made and to now have this level of success and be playing so well."
To some, it was an inexplicable transition. That's why Armstead initially refused to discuss his decision to play for the Shockers. He knew there would be doubters with questions he'd never felt obligated to answer.
"People were looking at me like, 'Why would you leave a program where you're getting school paid to come to where you're going to pay?'" Armstead said. "They didn't believe me. At first, I didn't really want to tell people that just for the simple fact I know I was going to have to hear the extra [questions]."
Added Bartley: "That blew my mind, too."
The Final Four certainly features players with more accolades and achievements, but few in the field have taken a path to Atlanta that rivals Armstead's.
His teammates, who've certainly faced their own adversity throughout their careers, recognize the struggles he's overcome as proof of his leadership abilities. They trust his instruction.
"I told him before [Saturday's] game [that] he's our quarterback, and if he doesn't like things we're doing on the court, then just tell me and [Cleanthony Early] what we need to do and how he wants us to set ball screens and do certain things," Carl Hall said. "He's very important to our team, and I don't know what we'd be if we didn't have him. So we're just glad to have Malcolm."
While his teammates celebrated around him at the Staples Center on Saturday, Armstead roamed the arena floor as he held the game ball.
Through everything he'd endured, he knew he'd reach this chapter one day if he just focused on basketball and remained patient.
The ball he gripped on Saturday was a reminder of that faith and the support he'd received from those who'd backed him since he was battling his brother before sunrise in Florence, Ala.
"That's like in the driveway, you dream of '3,2,1 ... Oh, college champions!' [and] going crazy as a [young player]," Armstead says. "But now to be older and to actually be able to live that through and be a part of that? It's crazy."
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