NCAA Final Four: Danny Manning recalls Kansas’ improbable 1988 NCAA™ title run

Dejected. Downtrodden. Lost.

Those adjectives best describe the morale within the Kansas Jayhawks’ locker room following a home loss to rival Kansas State. It was KU’s third straight loss and, more significantly, ended a 55-game home-winning streak that dated to 1984.

Postgame, Kansas junior Milt Newton told reporters: “It hurts so much. Right now, I feel like the world is over.”

The world may not have been over, but all signs indicated that their season was. The loss represented a long fall from grace for a team that entered the 1987-88 season ranked seventh nationally and won eight of its first 10 games.

After a respectable start to the season, the team faced an abundance of adversity, but Allen Fieldhouse remained its safe haven.

Regardless of how bad things got, KU had its home streak to carry it through. In a year full of lows, the end of the streak was likely the lowest point.

By losing to K-State, the safe haven was infiltrated. There was nowhere else to look for hope. Nowhere but their coach, Larry Brown.

Brown remained upbeat, imploring his team to start a new streak. The Jayhawks wouldn’t right away, but their streak came soon enough — and just at the right time.

What the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks accomplished over the next nine weeks — culminating in a national championship — was much more remarkable than any win streak.

This is their story, told through the memory of 1988 National Player of the Year Danny Manning.

‘Keep pushing’

Four days after falling to K-State, the Jayhawks suffered another home loss, this one at the hands of No. 4 Oklahoma. The team that had won eight of its first 10 games then lost eight of its next 10.

With just a month remaining in the regular season, this preseason top-10 team was in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament.

How do you come back from such a low point? For Manning, it was simple. Trust in your coach.

“We’re going through that rough stretch and Coach Brown is like, ‘We’re close, we’re close,” he said. “‘We’ve got to keep pushing, we’ve got to keep battling.’”

At the time, Brown had already amassed 15 years of head coaching experience at the collegiate and professional levels. He was a three-time ABA Coach of the Year who had also led two schools to the Final Four. When he spoke, players trusted him.

His messages of belief and tenacity resonated with Manning and the rest of the team.

“When you finally do get that breakthrough … maybe it’s four or five possessions in a row that give you a chance to win that game, or maybe it’s making plays down the stretch to win those games that you start to [think] ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s build on this.’”

Build. That’s exactly what the Jayhawks would do.

After losing to the Sooners, KU finished the season winning nine of its last 11 games, re-establishing itself as a tournament team in the process. The 21-11 Jayhawks earned an at-large bid to the 1988 NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed.

But in March, you only need a ticket to the dance to make magic.

NCAA Tournament

Bob Devaney Sports Center, home of KU’s conference foe Nebraska, played host to the first and second rounds of the 1988 NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region.

The 6-seed Jayhawks made the 3.5-hour trip to Lincoln, Neb., to open the tournament in familiar territory. Their first opponent was the 11-seed Xavier Musketeers. Kansas came away with a 13-point win.

No. 6 Kansas 85, No. 11 Xavier 72

After its conquest of Xavier, KU faced 14-seed Murray State, a team primed to complete its second upset of the weekend after knocking off 3-seed N.C. State. A valiant effort from the Racers resulted in a narrow KU win. Sweet 16 bound.

No. 6 Kansas 61, No. 14 Murray State 58 

Next up was a date with 7-seed Vanderbilt in what then-assistant coach Alvin Gentry would call a favorable matchup. It was certainly favorable for Manning, who finished with 38 points in another 13-point win.

No. 6 Kansas 77, No. 7 Vanderbilt 64 

Survive. Advance. Kansas was on to the Elite Eight, where it would face Kansas State for the fourth time in less than two months. The team hoped this meeting would end much differently than the last two.

Pontiac, Mich.; March 27, 1988 

The only thing worse than losing is losing to a rival.

When KU and K-State met in late March, the Jayhawks had already experienced the misery of falling to their rivals from Manhattan twice that season.

The rivals’ three earlier meetings set the stage for the fourth in Michigan. Only this time, the stakes were higher. No, this wasn’t just for bragging rights or conference positioning — an opportunity to play in the Final Four was on the line.

After trailing by two at halftime, the Jayhawks outscored K-State by 15 in the second half for a 13-point victory and a trip back to the Final Four.

Kansas left no doubt about which team was the best. All that was left was to be the best team in the nation. But two more hurdles remained.

NCAA Final Four

The bright lights and media frenzy can be unnerving. It’s easier to become distracted when you’re on the biggest stage in college basketball.

Manning was among the older Jayhawks who were making their second Final Four appearance in three years.

“We knew the Final Four was an exciting time,” he said. “Having experienced it in Dallas in 1986, our seniors and upperclassmen kind of had a feel for it.”

But this year was different. It was the 50th anniversary of the Final Four. The lights were even brighter.

The host was Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo. A mere 40 miles from KU’s campus.

The distractions were amplified.

Manning knew that as a senior, it was part of his role to help keep the team focused.

“We knew with it being that close to our campus there was going to be a lot of energy and a lot of excitement,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t get caught up in all of that. It’s hard not to. But as an upperclassman, that was kind of the deal.”

Even Manning admits he was amazed at what came with playing so close to campus.

“All of a sudden, you go to the open practice and it’s pretty much sold out. It’s an open practice and people can’t get in,” he said. “Then it’s kind of like, ‘Wow, an open practice. Not a game. An open practice.’ Then it starts to hit you.”

Manning admits that it was hard to remain focused.

But the upperclassmen’s message to the rest of the team was simple: “Let’s make sure we get into our game mode. Let’s make sure we get our prep time in and understand what we need to do.”

KU had quite the task: Stop the 2-seed Duke Blue Devils.

The theme of redemption continued.

Six weeks prior to the national semifinal, Duke became the third team to infiltrate the safe haven of Allen Fieldhouse. The Blue Devils used overtime to give KU its third home loss of the year.

But the Jayhawks weren’t intimidated by having to face teams against whom they’d been unsuccessful against in the regular season.

“You always had comfort once you’ve played somebody one time and that second or third time rolls around from the standpoint of having a good feel of what they like to do and understanding personnel,” Manning said.

In committing 21 turnovers, KU didn’t play a perfect game by any means, but Manning’s stellar play and contributions from Milt Newton, Chris Piper and Kevin Pritchard propelled the Jayhawks past Duke for the outcome they desired.

No. 6 Kansas 66, No. 2 Duke 59 

Eight weeks earlier, KU was in danger of missing the tournament. It was now just one win away from basketball immortality.

National championship

One team stood between KU and its second national title in school history: the mighty Oklahoma Sooners.

The Sooners’ high-octane offense averaged more than 102 points per game, a stark comparison to the 75.3 the Jayhawks averaged.

At 35-3, Oklahoma spent much of the year ranked in the top five nationally. OU completed a 2-0 sweep of Kansas during the regular season, including that 73-65 win within the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. The Sooners dominated the Big 8 Conference, winning its regular season and tournament championships.

Again, an opportunity for redemption. Again, KU wasn’t intimidated.

“For us, we watched tape after we lost to [Oklahoma] early in the season. Both times,” Manning said. “We felt like [we had a chance] if we handled their pressure, because they come out and are a very active team defensively — they turn you over and score in the open court.”

With one day in between the national semifinal and national title game, the Jayhawks had to rely on their knowledge of Oklahoma’s team and personnel to prepare.

“Make sure you fulfill your role, do your job. … I think guys had that mindset stepping out on the court.” Manning said. “You like playing Oklahoma, because they’re going to play fast. It’s going to be an up-and-down game. They’re going to score some points and we’re going to score some points, and those are always fun games that you want to play.”

In the first half, both teams played fast and scored a lot of points. After 20 minutes of play, the teams found themselves back where they began. Tied.

Halftime: No. 1 Oklahoma 50, No. 6 Kansas 50 

For a team that averaged a shade over 75 points per game, scoring 50 in the first half is nothing short of impressive, but it wasn’t the Kansas brand of basketball.

In Brown’s halftime speech, he encouraged the Jayhawks to play their game.

“We’ve played at the pace that they like to play at,” Manning recalled Brown saying. “Now let’s play at a pace that’s more beneficial to our team.”

“We’re kind of looking around like, ‘Hey we’re doing pretty good getting up and down, but OK, we’ll see how this ends up going,’”

You could say it ended up going pretty well.

“For us, it came down to certain plays: us getting to the free throw line, us taking care of the basketball, us going to get 50-50 balls … situations when we get an opportunity to score because of that effort and energy and down the stretch. It was guys playing as a team.”

No free throws were bigger than the two Manning sank to give Kansas an 83-79 lead with five seconds remaining. It would end up being the last points of the game.

Final: No. 6 Kansas 83, No. 1 Oklahoma 79 

The 1988 Kansas Jayhawks were national champions.

‘Bedlam reigns in Kansas City’

As the buzzer rang, Kemper Arena was a scene of madness.

Oklahoma players stood in shock, seemingly unable to process their season coming to an unsuccessful end.

The Sooners’ last-second heave caromed off the backboard and fittingly into the hands of Manning, who led the way in the championship game with 31 points, 18 rebounds and five steals. With the ball in his hands, an elated Manning was swarmed by his teammates, Kansas cheerleaders and photographers.

Brown, in a different state of disbelief, was embraced by the rest of his coaching staff. He led, his team believed, and they all were champions.

Then came the phrase that still defines the season: Danny and the Miracles. But Manning didn’t see it that way.

“That nickname … kind of rubbed me a different type of way because basketball is a team game and everyone has to sacrifice for a whole.”

Yes, Manning was brilliant throughout the tournament, averaging 27.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and two steals per game, but a look at any box score from that run will show that the contributions from the rest of that Kansas team were not minor.

Manning did not hesitate to distribute the credit among his teammates.

“It was Chris Piper, it was Archie Marshall it was Milt Newton,” he said. “We came in together and our journey was on the same path.”

He continued, praising Kevin Pritchard, who “was someone that missed a late part of the season but came back for the tournament and really helped propel us and put us in a situation to play for a national championship.”

From Manning’s perspective, the team was able to reach the pinnacle because everyone held one another accountable on the court. There was only one prerequisite to be able to demand more of your teammates: Play hard.

‘Can you believe this?’

Kansas City; April 4, 1988 

Calm. Reflective. Introspective.

The madness from the arena floor came to a halt once Kansas reached its locker room.

Manning set the scene: “After the game was probably the coolest part. … We’re just sitting in the locker room, waiting to do media, waiting to do whatever we have to do before we go back to the hotel and you’re sitting there just reminiscing.”

It was a deviation from the usual locker room after a championship win. For these individuals, the journey was as important as the destination. After overcoming adversity to make history, this team needed time to truly relish the moment.

“It kind of hits you that this is the last time that we’ll ever be together,” Manning said. “This is the last time that we’ll ever play a game together.”

Their world as they knew it was over. Nine weeks earlier, the world was on top of them. This time, they were on top of the world.

As the media made its way into the Jayhawks’ locker room, the madness resumed. The proximity of the Final Four to KU’s campus was once a distraction, but now it enhanced the championship experience.

“You get back to the hotel and it’s a mob scene,” Manning said. “People are all around the hotel — family, friends, our fans — and you’re going into the hotel and it’s just a crazy fun atmosphere.

“Just about all you can say is, ‘Wow. Can you believe this?’”

Yes, 30 years later, the story of the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks is still hard to believe.

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