At one point during the 1987-88 campaign, the Kansas Jayhawks were 12-8 and struggling. Despite being the preseason #1 team in the country, the Hawks were only 1-4 in the Big 8 and had experienced a decade’s worth of bad luck.
“How bad was it?”, you ask. Well, before the season even began, one of the top front-line recruits, Joe Young, became a Prop-48 victim. Next, it was part-time starting forward (as a freshman) Keith Harris, who spent his entire sophomore season in Larry Brown’s doghouse and played sparingly. Then, starting center Marvin Branch fell victim to academic woes and missed the rest of the year. Next, starting forward Archie Marshall suffered a career-ending injury. Later on, part-time starting point guard Otis Livingston and back-up center Mike Massucci were kicked off the team and quit respectively because of personal problems.
Despite these incredible setbacks, and the lesser late-season injuries to starters Kevin Pritchard and Chris Piper, as well as the constant distracting rumors about Larry Brown leaving, this disheveled, depleted group of survivors began to turn the season around. Ironically, the change became visible when KU lost to Kansas State at Allen Field House in Lawrence. The loss broke KU’s 55-game home-court winning streak – the NCAA’s longest at the time.
If ever there would have been a reason for the Jayhawks to give up – to throw in the towel, then would have been the time. Besides losing their winning streak at home, the humiliating loss to their in-state rivals, their personnel problems, the coach possibly leaving and the 1-4 conference record, they had lost their last three consecutive games in which they held double-digit second-half leads. Talk about depressing!
But, amidst this torrent of negatives, there was one light – one umbrella – one hope - one constant – Danny Manning. Manning, a senior, had vowed to show the world he could perform in the big games and that he could carry his team – this team – with him. When Marshall was injured, Manning committed the rest of the season to his teammate and friend and the wins started coming.
Kansas finished the season on a 9-3 run. As would come to be significant later, KU’s three losses during this stretch were to #6 Duke, #4 Oklahoma and Kansas State… again.
When the pairings were announced for the NCAA tournament, Larry Brown had been hoping for a Friday first-round game instead of Thursday. The reason was because Pritchard was hurt and he wanted him to get one more day of rest. He got it. When the Jayhawks saw where they were going to play games one and two they had to be happy with that as well. Of all the 16 sub-regional locations, Kansas managed to get the one closest to home – Lincoln, Nebraska – on a court it played on every year.
After the Jayhawks upset 18th-ranked Xavier in the first round, their luck continued. The next opponent was to be the #3-seeded N.C. State Wolfpack – who would have had incentive to beat Kansas. (Not only had KU stolen Danny Manning from underneath N.C. State coach Jim Valvano’s nose, but KU had defeated N.C. State each of the last three years.) As fortune would have it, however, the Hawks never had to face the Wolfpack because N.C. State was upset. As a result, Kansas played a Murray State team which had spent itself on its emotional upset. KU won.
At the regional, Kansas’ first opponent was to be the #2-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers of the powerful Big East. However, a funny thing happened along the way. They were upset too – by Vanderbilt. Consequently, Kansas got to play another team which had spent itself on its emotional upset. Once again, KU won.
The next game was certain to be the Jayhawks last. They were to play the #1-seeded Purdue Boilermakers for a berth in the Final Four. Surprise, surprise. Purdue lost as well. More importantly, Purdue lost to Kansas State of all teams. Now, the incentive was on the other foot. KU had incentive to knock off the higher-seeded Wildcats and to avenge not only its 55-game home winning streak loss, but one the three late-season losses. Kansas State spent itself on its emotional upset of Purdue. KU won.
Remarkably Kansas was in the the Final Four – the Holy Grail – a place where teams that start 12-8 simply do not tread. And, as their tournament luck would have it, it just so happened to be the 50th anniversary of the NCAA. And, as the NCAA is headquartered in Kansas City, the Final Four was located at Kemper Arena just 30 minutes from the campus of the Kansas Jayhawks. Since the team played several games each year in Kemper, it was like a home away from home.
The Hawks semifinal opponent was to be the #1 team in the country Temple (as in 32-1 Temple). But… you guessed it. Temple was upset by a familiar foe to Kansas – Duke. Once again, the Hawks had incentive to knock of the heavily favored Blue Devils – not only because KU had lost to Duke in the Final Four two years earlier, but because Duke was one of those three teams who had beaten Kansas in the last half the season. First K-State and now…
…Duke apparently spent itself on its emotional upset of Temple. KU won.
Going into the championship game, Kansas was, presumably, to play the odds-on favorite to win it all – Arizona. The Wildcats had already won 35 games – more than any other team, but they lost the semifinal game to KU’s Big 8 rival, Oklahoma.
The Big 8 had not had a single team in the championship game in 30 years. Now, it had two. The Jayhawks entered the title match as huge 8-point underdogs. The odd against winning were going at 4-1. Kansas had already lost twice during the season to Oklahoma – both times by eight points. But, OU was the only other team which had beaten KU in the last half the season and the Hawks had already avenged their losses to Kansas State and Duke. Two names scratched off. Only the Sooners from Oklahoma remained on the hit list. One game. One victim. Kansas had their final incentive. The 35-3 Sooners had spent themselves on their big win versus Arizona…
The game was an absolute masterpiece – 50-50 at halftime – an NCAA tournament record for points in a half. As the clock wound down in the second half, Danny Manning had his greatest opportunity to shake the “disappears in late-game situations” label some had thrust upon him. He proceeded to hit four straight free throws in the last 14 seconds to give Kansas an insurmountable 4-point lead. Symbolically, as Oklahoma’s final shot careened off the glass, it was Danny Manning who captured it. It was his 18th rebound – a career high. His 31 points and five steals were merely the exclamation point to his being voted the tournament MVP.
Never before had a team with 11 losses won the championship; never before had one player so carried a team so far against so much. For a team to have had the worst luck in the world during the first half the season, they amazingly had the best luck in the world during the tournament – from home-court advantages to upsets to incentives.
Danny Manning became far more than a great player that day, he became one of the greatest iconic symbols in the history of the NCAA tournament and college basketball. And, his team became known affectionately as “Danny and the Miracles”.
As Manning so profoundly put it after the nets were cut, “What’s Luck? I think luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Never a truer statement has been uttered. Manning’s last words to the press after the game were, “People said that we couldn’t do it, that we were finished. But, we’re the national champions. We’re number one. What do you think of us now?”
-- Martin Manley, 1988