Danny Manning and his Kansas teammates weren’t supposed to be there on April 4, 1988, in Kansas City, one of the final two teams standing in the 1987-1988 college basketball season.
Though the Jayhawks had Manning, the Naismith College Player of the Year who would soon be the top selection in the 1988 NBA Draft, they also had 11 losses.
Coach Larry Brown used 12 different starting combinations during the season. He lost two players to injury, two more to academic issues, and two others to suspension.
Sophomore Kevin Pritchard did not become the team’s starting point guard until the 20th game of the season. His backup, Clint Normore, spent his fall months on the Jayhawks football team.
Chris Piper, the Jayhawks’ rim protector, hung all of 200 pounds on his 6-8 frame. Coming off knee surgery in November, Piper played much of the season with a pelvic injury that would require surgery at the season’s end.
Their junior “sharpshooter” Milt Newton had scored all of 211 points over 62 games in his first two seasons.
When the Jayhawks fell to 9-8 following a 73-65 loss to Oklahoma on Feb. 3, they were staring not at the Big Dance, but the NIT.
But then, Manning did what Manning did and the supporting cast of characters, even one named Scooter, made a run for the ages.
Despite an 18-11 record, Kansas earned an at-large berth and a #6 seed in the 1988 NCAA Tournament. There, the Jayhawks upended Xavier before holding off Murray State to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Against Vanderbilt, Manning scored 38 points as Kansas defeated the Commodores 77-64. It was Manning’s 129th career game – and 51st straight – in double figures. Vandy’s Frank Kornet stood mesmerized by Manning’s blockbuster performance.
“He was on and they were going to him,” Kornet said. “I just tried to make him shoot the turnaround jumper because he was unstoppable down low. I was in his face all the time. It truly was frustrating. It was like, ‘When is this man going to miss?’”
In the Elite Eight versus in-state rival Kansas State, Manning did his part with 20 points and 6 boards, but it was “The Miracles” of Danny and The Miracles that propelled the Jayhawks to a 71-58 victory. Scooter Barry, best known as being NBA star Rick Barry’s son, scored a career high 15 points, while Newton paired 18 points with 9 rebounds and 7 assists.
“Everybody says we’re a one-man team,” Manning said as the Jayhawks headed to the eighth Final Four in program history. “One-man this, one-man that. Basketball is not a one-man sport.”
In the national semifinals against Duke, which had beat the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse in late February, Kansas jumped out to an 18-2 advantage over the Blue Devils behind Manning, who had six points, three steals, and two assists in the opening minutes.
As Duke clawed back into the game, Brown called a timeout with six minutes remaining and looked at Manning.
“Take over,” he ordered.
Manning did. He blocked shots. He scored. He finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 blocks as Kansas won 66-59 and notched their first title game appearance since 1957 when Wilt Chamberlain donned Jayhawk colors.
In the national championship game, Big Eight rival Oklahoma was installed as an 8-point favorite. And not for nothing. Oklahoma entered the game 35-3, averaging 103.5 points per game with a plus-22.6 scoring margin. Kansas, by contrast, averaged a comparatively paltry 75.1 points per game. Yet more, Oklahoma had already downed Kansas twice on the season.
Tied 50-50 at the break, the highest scoring half in NCAA championship game history, KU and OU engaged in a back-and-forth affair after halftime. Brown urged his squad to keep it close until the final minutes. He knew Manning gave them a chance.
Down the stretch, Manning made four consecutive free throws to clinch the Jayhawks’ 83-79 victory and the school’s second national title. After scoring 31 points and grabbing 18 boards, Manning was swiftly and unanimously named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
In front of a crowded room of reporters in the post-game euphoria, the soft-spoken Manning commanded the podium to recount the most unlikeliest of titles from a basketball blueblood.
“I’d like for you guys to put this in your articles,” Manning directed the reporters. “To those who said it couldn’t happen, well, we’re the national champs. Number one. How do you like it now?”