SAN JOSE, Calif. – Discussion about dealing with the Southern Illinois Salukis' rabid defense and continuing this NCAA tournament renaissance after consecutive one-and-done showings filled Kansas' locker room at HP Pavilion. Over in a corner sat the one Jayhawk who arguably knew the most about bringing another national championship to Lawrence.
Relaxing in a blue KU sweat suit, Danny Manning made himself feel right at home stretching his 6-foot-10 frame over a chair. One of Kansas' all-time greats, Manning figures to be just as comfortable imparting his wisdom to players as the new assistant coach to Bill Self.
"I talk to them all the time," said Manning, who was promoted Wednesday after four years as KU's team manager and director of student-athlete development. "… You're not going to win every game. But as long as you put forth your best effort, you give yourself a chance."
In Manning's estimation, the Jayhawks didn't stand a chance during their last two trips to the tourney. They played their worst basketball at the worst time against some of the hottest opponents in suffering shocking first-round losses to double-digit seeds Bucknell in 2005 and Bradley last year.
Traditional powers like Kansas aren't supposed to lose their NCAA openers, much less twice in a row. The heat has been turned up on Self ever since, with the temperature temporarily cooling now that the Jayhawks, the top seed in the West region, have returned to the Sweet 16.
"We played teams that were well-coached … teams that would make the plays that were needed," Manning said of the early exits the last two seasons. "We couldn't make those plays."
"You have to come to the realization that at this level, and any other level you play at, you have competitive and talented players," he added. "You have to come out and do your best and play your best every night to avoid being embarrassed."
As a senior in 1988, Manning and his Jayhawks teammates maximized their full abilities. A bubble team fortunate enough to receive an at-large invite, KU went on a miraculous run behind a dominant Manning to reach the Final Four and beat Oklahoma for the national championship.
Manning's Most Outstanding Player performance capped a season in which he also earned national player of the year honors. Only Manning, who was the NBA's No. 1 overall choice that summer, and point guard Kevin Pritchard, a second-round pick two years later, continued their careers in the NBA.
Asked to compare that team with this year's squad, Manning saw only one similarity: Both play team basketball.
"We all depended on one another and we held each other accountable, just like this team does," Manning said. "We played hard and we played together and we were unselfish. Those are all the same qualities of the great teams you see out there."
But if Manning didn't score, the '88 Jayhawks were done. That isn't the case with this year's team, which features a balanced attack with two low-post scorers (Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur) and a pair of outside threats (Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers).
At 13.8 points a game, Rush tops five Kansas players who average in double figures.
"There's not one particular person that has to have a great game for us to win," Manning said. "We have a lot of players that can step up for us and produce for us on any given night."
From now on, Manning will have a bigger role in who plays for KU. With Tim Jankovich leaving to take over Illinois State's program, Manning will be heavily involved in recruiting for Self, who tried to get Manning to join his staff when he came to Kansas four years ago.
"He's ready. He wants to get out on the road," Self said. "He's done a lot for our program already, not in a teaching standpoint on the court, but he's just as interested in making young guys better as he was scoring points back when he played."
But do the current Jayhawks even know the story of the great Danny Manning?
"I'm pretty sure I could give them a little history lesson," Manning said grinning.
- Danny Manning