The basketball program at Kansas State has had a long and steady history of producing winning teams. What the school hasn’t done, at least in modern times, is make it all the way to the Final Four. Not since 1964 have the Wildcats danced on college basketball’s biggest stage. The 1988 Kansas State basketball team came awfully close though and pulled off a memorable NCAA Tournament upset along the way.
Lon Kruger was a young head coach looking to make his name when he took over in 1987. His predecessor, Jack Hartman, had a good run at reached a regional final four times in his career. Kruger’s first team in 1987 made the NCAAs and won the first game.
Mitch Richmond was the heart of the team. Richmond averaged 23 points/7 rebounds in the 1988 season and went to an outstanding NBA career that eventually landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Richmond got support from William Scott in the backcourt.
Kansas State started slowly. They were 8-4 in non-conference games and that included bad losses to Missouri State and twice to Southern Miss. There was also a 101-72 shellacking at the hands of Purdue. The Boilermakers were one of the best teams in the country, but the Wildcats would get their own say before this season was over.
The start of Big Eight play saw a revival, with five straight wins. Then K-State lost to NCAA-bound Missouri. They lost 112-95 at Oklahoma, another nationally elite team. They lost a one-point heartbreaker at home to archrival Kansas and Danny Manning.
An NCAA bid was by no means a guarantee, but Kruger’s team surged down the stretch. They won their final five games, moved into second place and still had a shot at sharing the Big Eight title with Oklahoma until the Sooners won their finale. The conference tournament saw some of the best Wildcat basketball yet—they knocked off Kansas in the semis and gave OU a good run in the final before losing 88-83.
It was a big year for Big Eight basketball. Oklahoma was a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament and after all the ups and downs, Kansas State was sitting on the 4-line in the Midwest Regional.
In spite of the high seed, the first NCAA game was hardly a walkover. LaSalle might have been a 13-seed, but Lionel Simmons ,who averaged 23ppg, was one of the best players in the country and a worthy rival to Richmond.
Simmons was indeed that good, and he went for 20/10 in the first-round game at South Bend. Richmond was better, dropping 30 and he had more help. Scott hit 17 points and the K-State defense held LaSalle to 37 percent shooting in a 66-53 win.
The second round opponent was DePaul, a Sweet 16 team from 1987 and with a future NBA point guard in Rod Strickland running the show. The Blue Demons were coming off a 64 percent shooting performance in their first-round rout of Wichita State.
But Kruger’s defense met the challenge. Again, they held an opponent to 37 percent shooting. Strickland had 19, but his two key support players, Stanley Brundy and Kevin Edwards, were forced into a combined 5-for-19 shooting display. Richmond knocked down 19 while Scott stepped up with 23 points and Kansas State won 66-58.
The reward was a trip to the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, where the Detroit Lions & Pistons used to play their home games before the advent of Ford Field. It was a nice season for Kansas State no matter what way you sliced it, and with top-seeded Purdue next in line, no one expected the season to extend beyond Friday night.
When the Boilermakers took a 43-34 lead at halftime, everything was unfolding as expected. Purdue, with three seniors in key roles, was widely expected to make a breakthrough Final Four run for head coach Gene Keady.
Then up jumped Mitch Richmond. He took over the second half and finished the game with 27 points/11 rebounds, shooting 10-for-20 from the floor. The K-State defense found its form of the first NCAA weekend and held Purdue to 27 points in the second half. The end result was a 73-70 upset that shattered brackets across the Midwest, if not the nation.
The Midwest Regional was a gutted bracket and the favorites on the other side had been eliminated. Kansas State needed only to deal with a 6-seed in the regional final. Unfortunately for them, that happened to be a 6-seed with Danny Manning in the lineup and it happened to be Kansas.
Manning was on one of the great tournament runs of all-time and he eventually led his team past Duke and Oklahoma to win the national championship. Even though Kansas State held a 29-27 lead at halftime, it came apart after intermission. Richmond shot 4-for-14 and the Wildcats lost 71-58.
Kansas State has continued to play fundamentally sound winning basketball in the ensuing decades. But it took them until 2010 to again reach a regional final of NCAA play and they again were stopped by a Cinderella story, this time Brad Stevens and Butler. The ultimate legacy of the 1988 Kansas State basketball team is a very good one, highlighted by the win over Purdue. That legacy will look better when this program can finally reach a Final Four for the first time since 1964.