The senior season for Kansas forward Danny Manning wasn’t going as planned. Manning had arrived in Kansas as a highly touted recruit and helped lead the program to the 1986 Final Four. Manning, and head coach Larry Brown, had high hopes for the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks, but in early February they were just 12-8 and wondering if even making the NCAA Tournament was going to happen.
Kansas righted the ship, Manning won National Player of the Year honors, but the Jayhawks were still a #6 seed going into March Madness—there wasn’t a lot of reason to expect big things as they began play in the Midwest Regional.
The first game was against a good Xavier opponent, and Kansas won 85-72. From that point forward, it seemed as though fortune smiled on the Jayhawks. N.C. State was the 3-seed in the bracket, but Jim Valvano’s team suffered a shocking loss to Murray State in the first round.
It took everything Manning and Kansas had to survive Murray State, but they were able to cash in the bracket break with a 61-58 win and move on to the Sweet 16. The opponent was supposed to be #2 seed Pitt, who had an interior duo of Charles Smith (later of the New York Knicks) and Jerome Lane that could at least temper Manning’s effect on a game, and if that happened, Kansas was mediocre at best.
Only Pitt also stumbled, losing in a big upset to Vanderbilt and their own talented center Will Perdue. The Chicago Bulls would eventually draft Perdue and he would play on a role on the first round of Jordan-era championship teams, but he was no match for Manning in the regionals at the Pontiac Silverdome. Kansas won 77-64.
One final stumbling block remained and that was Purdue. The Big Ten champs and the regional’s #1 seed, the Boilermakers were playing as well as anyone in the nation when the tournament began. But head coach Gene Keady was often cursed in March and this year was no different—yet another favorite fell before Kansas ever faced them, as in-state rival Kansas State upset the Boilermakers.
Kansas and Manning upended K-State in the regional final 71-58. It was a most improbable ride to a Final Four. A #6 seed had gone through the bracket playing no one seeded higher than fourth (Kansas State).
There were no bracket breaks at the 1988 Final Four, where the opponent was 2-seed Duke and a pair of #1s, Oklahoma and Arizona were in the other semi-final. But there was a geography break—the Final Four was at Kansas City, where the Jayhawks played the occasional home game during the regular season. Could this have worked out any better for Manning, Brown & Co.?
Kansas dispatched Duke with surprising ease, a 66-59 game that the Jayhawks had under control from the outset. It set up an all-Big Eight (the forerunner of today’s Big 12) battle in the NCAA final against Oklahoma.
Manning had been brilliant throughout the NCAA Tournament, but on Monday night he went to a higher plateau. Against a talented opponent that could run, press and shoot better than anyone in the land, Manning scored 31 points, hauled down 18 rebounds, had five steals and blocked two shots. Kansas pulled off an 83-79 stunner.
The 1988 Kansas Jayhawks would be forever remembered under the nickname “Danny & The Miracles”, and their leading man’s brilliance on Monday night was one of the all-time great championship performances in any sport.