The University of Oklahoma has been much more renowned for its football program than what they do on the basketball court and that was certainly true in the 1980s when Barry Switzer had OU football rolling and won a national championship. But the 1988 Oklahoma Sooners basketball team were awfully good themselves and nearly gave the college town of Norman another national title.
When head coach Billy Tubbs arrived in 1981 the program had made just one NCAA Tournament in the past 35 years. By 1983, Tubbs had the Sooners in March Madness. In 1985, with a team built around a great post player in Wayman Tisdale, they came within a basketball of the Final Four. In 1987 they lost on a buzzer-beater in the Sweet 16. In 1988, it all came together.
The talent was tremendous and it started up front with Stacey King and Harvey Grant. They combined to average 43 points/19 rebounds per game and King went on to play in the NBA on the first run of Michael Jordan’s championship teams with the Chicago Bulls in the early 1990s.
Mookie Blaylock and Ricky Grace were a potent backcourt duo, combining for 32 points a game. Dave Sieger chipped in 11 a game to complete a balanced and explosive attack. And the Sooners could also play some defense—Blaylock was a defensive ace in the backcourt, King an outstanding shotblocker down low. Oklahoma played a high-octane style, but the high point volumes came because of pace, not because of a lack of defense.
OU wasn’t highly regarded when the season began, ranked 19th in the preseason poll. They won their first fourteen games, but it was against non-descript competition. When the Sooners lost 84-77 to LSU in a road-neutral game at New Orleans—to a team that would end up a 9-seed in the NCAAs and lose in the first round, there still wasn’t any reason to expect anything special.
Then Oklahoma beat sixth-ranked Pitt, with future NBA forward Charles Smith and a tough power forward in Jerome Lane. The old Big Eight Conference was having a strong year in 1988 and that would be validated in March. OU stormed through it. After an early loss to Kansas State, the Sooners ripped off ten straight wins and clinched a share of the league title.
An overtime loss at NCAA-bound Missouri was just a hiccup. Oklahoma closed the regular season with a 113-93 win over Nebraska to secure the outright conference championship. The Sooners won the Big Eight tournament in Kansas City and secured the #1 seed in the Southeast Regional.
The NCAA run began in Atlanta and OU got off to a slow start, only leading 16-seed UT-Chattanooga 34-29 at the half. They were outrebounded on the game, 39-34. But the Sooners had too much talent. They dropped 60 points in the second half, Grant and King combined for 50 and the end result was an easy 94-66 win.
Auburn, another school more noted for its football teams, was up next. But like Oklahoma, Auburn had a basketball team that was pretty good too. Charles Barkley was a recent star, as was NBA forward Chuck Person. Even without those two, the Tigers had thrown a mild scare into eventual national champion Indiana in the 1987 NCAA Tournament. And they got a first-round win over Bradley, who had an elite scorer in Hersey Hawkins.
The Sooners were ready, especially on the defensive end where they forced Auburn into 35 percent shooting. In spite of another poor rebounding performance, Oklahoma made up for it with sheer talent. King went off for 37 while Blaylock added 21 in a 107-87 win.
It was on to Birmingham for the regionals and an anticipated game with Louisville. The Cardinals were only two years removed from an NCAA title and their center Pervis Ellison had been the Most Outstanding Player in the 1986 Final Four.
The game was everything you would expect from two very athletic teams, frenetic action and it was hotly contested. Ellison went for 23/14 and six Cardinal players scored in double figures. Oklahoma got great games from its own frontcourt. King delivered a 24/12 and Grant exploded for 34 points. The ultimate difference was threes and frees—OU hit 10 treys to Louisville’s 5 and the Sooners outscored the Cardinals 20-13 at the free throw line. The final was 108-98.
Everyone had expected another high-profile Bluegrass battle in the regional final, this time with 2-seed Kentucky. But Villanova had jumped up off the 6-line to beat both Illinois and Kentucky to get here. Memories of Villanova’s 1985 NCAA title run were still fresh in everyone’s memories, so no one needed to remind Tubbs about what this program could do.
Villanova slowed the pace and led 38-31 at the half. To their great credit, Oklahoma’s players kept their posed and they clamped down on the defensive end. The Wildcats only scored 19 after intermission. King was the dominant individual player, with 28 points/11 rebounds. The Sooners gradually took control and then the avalanche started as they won going away, 78-59.
King was named Most Outstanding Player of the regional. Oklahoma was going to the Final Four in Kansas City. There was only other #1 seed still remaining and that was Arizona, with All-American Sean Elliot at forward and Steve Kerr at the point.
Both backcourts were cold—Grace, Blaylock and Kerr all shot poorly. OU couldn’t contain Elliot, who nailed 31 points. All three Arizona frontcourt starters got 11 rebounds Once again though, the Sooners could overcome a rebounding disadvantage with the offensive prowess of their frontcourt.
Grant and King combined for 42 points and Oklahoma found an unlikely hero on the bench in Andre Wiley, who scored 11 points and keyed a decisive advantage for the Sooners in production from the reserves. They grabbed a twelve-point lead at halftime and maintained control throughout in an 86-78 win.
Conference rival Kansas was only a 6-seed, and had taken out Kansas State to get to the Final Four and then beaten 2-seed Duke in the national semifinal. Even with a nominal homecourt advantage at Kemper Arena, Kansas was still the underdog to OU on Monday night.
For one half, Oklahoma had the pace where they wanted it even though the score was tied 50-50 at intermission. What they didn’t have was Danny Manning. The Kansas star was on one of the great runs in NCAA Tournament history and he capped his senior year with a 31 points/18 rebounds performance in this championship game. King finished with 17/7, but Grant had a so-so game and Grace struggled from the outside. The Sooners lost 83-79.
In the years since, Oklahoma has made a couple more Final Fours, in 2002 and 2016. They’ve produced some great players notably Blake Griffin. They haven’t won a national championship, but the 1988 Oklahoma Sooners showed their hometown just how much fun basketball could be.