For the Sunday Oklahoman, I wrote about the 1988 NCAA championship game. You can read that column here. But I had a lot of leftover material that still was interesting. I thought I would share it.
* Billy Tubbs talked about how fatigued the Sooners were – and how most every team in the Final Four comes in fatigued – and made a good point about energy. While the Final Four can supply energy just being there, the venue itself did nothing for OU. “Playing in the Big Eight, going back to Kansas City’s probably not the most exciting thing you could do,” Tubbs said of Kemper Arena, where OU always went for the Big Eight Tournament. “As far as getting to play Kansas again, I don’t think that was necessarily exciting.”
* Tubbs went down memory lane reciting OU’s trek to the Final Four, and how the really big game of the year is the regional final. OU beat Villanova in Birmingham, Ala., to reach the Final Four. “Just an awesome game,” Tubbs said of all Elite Eight matchups. “Getting to that point, and going to the Final Four, I think that’s the most exciting thing in the whole deal.” Tubbs recalled that the Villanova game was not well-attended. ‘Nova beat Kentucky in the semifinal, while OU beat Louisville. “Remember, Kentucky and Louisville bought all the tickets to that region,” Tubbs said. “We played those guys to a half-empty house, if I remember right.”
He remembers right. The listed attendance for OU-Louisville was 16,000 and change. For Villanova, 11,000 and change.
* Tubbs is not a big fan of the media schedule. “We played the second game in the Final Four,” Tubbs said. “We probably didn’t get our team in bed until 2 o’clock in the morning.
Had to take five or six players Sunday morning to the press conference. That was not a lot of fun. Wasn’t much time for sleep. The next morning, Larry Brown and I were at Good Morning America or the Today Show or something, back in the arena at 6 o’clock Monday morning.”
* The best team didn’t win the title that year. But Tubbs said that’s often the case.
“Getting to the finals and to the Final Four itself is really a very difficult deal, I don’t care who you are,” Tubbs said. “The thing about the NCAA Tournament that makes it a lot of fun for a lot of people, it’s a different breed of cat. You have an off game, you’re through. You don’t get another chance. Playing in the conference, you can lose to the worst team in the conference and still have a chance to win the championship. You can’t do that in the NCAA Tournament.”
* I asked Tubbs about the disappointment of losing that game, and he had a very good perspective. He said something I’ve long believed. The least-disappointing result comes in the championship game.
“It’s not as bad losing in the finals as it is in any other point,” Tubbs said. “You’re through (either way). Certainly it’s disappointing. But you can’t go on, so you know that’s the last game. The rest of the tournament, when you lose, it’s ‘we could have gone on to the next round.’”
* Twenty-five years later, the greatness of that OU team was not subsided. “There was no question it was a special team,” Tubbs said. “I found out before we ever played that it could be a special team. There was just a lot of things that fit together with that team. The defense fit together, the defense that we played, people don’t realize how difficult that defense is to play. You really have to have special people to do it.”
* The greatness of Danny Manning has not subsided, either. College basketball has nothing like him today. Nothing even close. A four-year star, who could have gone pro after a year or two and been a high pick?
“We knew we had the best player in college basketball,” said KU’s Jeff Gueldner. “The best player in college basketball played like it and took over the game when it needed to be taken over.”
KU coach Larry Brown said that even though OU had “great players, Danny was the best player.”
Here’s an example from that game, according to Brown. Manning and fellow post player Chris Piper “stopped a lot of post entry passes.”
That’s an element of the game people don’t focus on.
* And here’s another. Foul trouble. Brown said the 1986 Kansas was his best “by far.” It made the Final Four, with Manning and Cedric Hunter and Greg Dreiling and Calvin Thompson and Ron Kellogg. But in the ’86 semifinals, Manning got in foul trouble and Dreiling fouled out. “We had so many bad things happen,” Brown said. “To step up and have such a great tournament (in 1988) … he played so great against Duke (in the ’88 semifinals), to take it to another level against Oklahoma was something we all hoped for. He was phenomenal.”
* I’ve always thought of Larry Brown as one of the game’s greatest coaches. An NCAA title no one saw coming, an NBA title no one saw coming (2004, Detroit Pistons). Winner wherever he went.
“It’s really hard to wrap up kind of the mystique of Larry Brown,” Gueldner said. “But I’ll say this. I played two years for Larry, two years for Roy Williams, known Bill Self since he was a G.A. As far as an X and O coach, I don’t think there’s anybody better than Larry Brown as far as putting together a gameplan. I can’t imagine there’s anybody better than Larry Brown. Doesn’t mean he’s perfect, but when it comes to putting a gameplan based on the players that he has, I think his record speaks to that. That particular run in the NCAA Tournament showed that.”
* KU’s Scooter Barry on Manning and Brown: “If we don’t have Danny, we’re not there. If we don’t have Larry, we’re not there.”
Barry said Manning “was the pillar of the team. And he was a great teammate. He was not a selfish, give-me-the-ball-I’m-taking-control-of-this type of player. He was within the flow of it. He knew how to pass the ball. He was not an ego type player. He was very subdued. When he got fired up and said something, it meant more, because he didn’t do that very often. When he got fired up during that whole tournament run, it kind of turbo-charged the rest of the team.”
* Kansas’ overall talent level has been greatly undersold over the years. “To say we weren’t great athletes sells us short,” Gueldner said. “We were good all-around athletically. But when you compared us to the guys Oklahoma had on their roster, we weren’t at that level.”
With that said, OU’s dominance over KU also has been oversold. In two games during the regular season, the Sooners won both by eight points, which is not a lot, especially for a high-scoring game (95-87; also 73-65). And Manning was in foul trouble in one of the games.
“They had beaten us,” Gueldner said. “Granted, they never blew us out. But they had every reason to be confident in that game. Billy Tubbs was a very arrogant coach. Most great coaches are arrogant. He had every right to feel confident. But as an opposing player you take great pride in not allowing that to happen.
“No disrespect to anybody in that program, because they were good.”
* The players said Brown didn’t want them to run with OU in the first half, but the Jayhawks ran anyway. Brown said he never watched a tape of the game until the 20-year reunion of that game.
“They all were making fun of me,” Brown said. “‘Coach, you didn’t want us to run. We said we were going to run privately.’ My whole point is, if someone’s going to pressure you, you’ve got to try to score.
“And I’ve played against Billy enough, if you hurt their press, he had a tendency to get a little conservative with us in the past.”
* Brown said that during a pregame meal that night, some TVs were on ESPN, whch was previewing the game and showing some of the highlights of the regular season meetings.
“I heard the kids commenting, ‘Oh, we’re better than that. We had a chance to win that game. We’re going to be all right.’ I just listened to them and let them talk. I got the feeling that they felt we had a chance to win.”
* Brown on Tubbs’ team: “They were great. I think he’s a real underrated coach. Keeps it simple, but his kids play with great confidence, play the way he wants them to play. Mookie Blaylock is as good a college guard … they had great guards. (Dave) Sieger shot the heck out of the ball. (Harvey) Grant and Stacey King, two phenomenal college players. They were a great team. But the Big Eight really prepared us. Lot of good teams in the Big Eight. Lot of great coaches. We benefited by that.”
Said Scooter Barry, “They were great. On paper, they should have killed us. They had beaten us by eight, but it didn’t feel like it was a close game. Tremendous defensive pressure. Shooting from the perimeter. Harvey inside, and Stacey was a premier center. They really had a full package. Played an uptempo style game that forced people to be uncomfortable.”