Kansas City, Mo.
Oklahoma basketball coach Billy Tubbs sometimes allows his mind to race as fast as his perpetual-motion Sooners fly about the court. This was one of those times. His team had just beaten Arizona, 86-78 in an NCAA tournament semifinal contest, and now, thinking ahead to this evening's championship game with Kansas, he suddenly resorted to the humor that is one of his trademarks. Placing a piece of paper to his forehead, he imitated ``The Great Carnac,'' a turban-headed psychic played by Johnny Carson on the Tonight show, who gives the answer before looking at the question.
Feigning deep concentration, the OU mentor conjured up the answer: ``He's happy his team has played against Danny Manning for the last time.'' And the question? ``What did Billy Tubbs say after the last Oklahoma-Kansas game on Feb. 24?''
The joke emphasized the point: namely that Oklahoma had never expected to come face-to-face again with the 6 ft. 10 in. Kansas senior who won the Naismith Award as this season's College Player of the Year.
Indeed, there was only one seemingly improbable way for these teams to renew acquaintances, and that was for both to advance through the 64-team shootout to the championship game of this golden anniversary NCAA tourney. And that is exactly what occurred.
Kansas, a loser to Duke in the 1987-88 regular season and in the tournament semifinals two years ago, turned the tables in Kemper Arena Saturday evening with a 66-59 win to set up an all-Big Eight Conference final.
This is not the first time teams from the same league have met for the title. Indiana beat fellow Big Ten member Michigan in the 1976 finale, and Villanova upended Big East rival Georgetown in 1985.
For spectators, such intramural clashes are not ideal, since they lack a certain intrigue that exists between less familiar opponents. Also, there's a question of fairness. Or to put it another way, should Oklahoma really have to beat Kansas a third time to prove it's the better team?
The Sooners have defeated the Jayhawks twice this season, each time by 8 points, yet if they can't do it again, Kansas goes into the book as national champion. This may seem unjust, but when the NCAA went to an expanded tournament field with more than one team per conference, regular-season results were devalued.
Indiana was able to beat Michigan for a third time in '76 to complete a 32-0 campaign. But Georgetown saw its dream of back-to-back titles erased in '85 when Villanova, a double Big East loser to the Hoyas, sprang one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.
At first glance, Kansas might appear to be almost as much of an underdog in tonight's showdown (9 p.m. Eastern time, on CBS) as Villanova was three years ago.
Oklahoma has a 35-3 record compared to the Jayhawks' 26-11. Then, too, no team with 11 losses has ever worn the NCAA crown (North Carolina State in 1982 and Villanova in '85 had 10 each). So the Jayhawks have their work cut out for them if they are to secure the school's second national title (the other came in 1952).
Being cast as an underdog has its advantages, though, particularly for a team that has hit its stride in the tournament and is not intimidated by Oklahoma's up-tempo style and end-to-end press.
During Manning's three previous seasons, Kansas was 6-2 against the Sooners, which is why Tubbs was so relieved to think he'd seen the last of him.
Manning is truly ``the franchise'' for a team that has had to regroup after losing several players to injury and academic or disciplinary reasons. Given this adversity, some have called this year Larry Brown's finest as a coach - and he's had a lot of good ones, with 16 winning seasons in as many tries at both the college and pro level.
His Jayhawks play excellent team defense, and rally 'round the big man on offense (Manning had 25 points against Duke, backed up by forward Milt Newton's 20).
Oklahoma made it to only one other NCAA final, in 1947, when it lost to Holy Cross. That was the year Bud Wilkinson took over the football team, starting a tradition that pretty much eclipsed the basketball program.
Under the colorful Tubbs, however, the school has developed a hoop success story that even the football team can be proud of. In fact, with just one more victory this team will outdo the gridiron squad, which lost its bid for the '87 national title in Orange Bowl to Miami.
Tubbs has intentionally adopted a flashy, run-and-gun game for its entertainment value. At times, the Sooners would appear to be a helter-skelter outfit, but Arizonal coach Lute Olson says the appearance is deceiving. ``They get the ball to the right people,'' he said after his second-ranked Wildcats were eliminated. Stacey (Sky) King and (General) Harvey Grant, two big men with great quickness and soft shooting touches, were the offensive catalysts against Arizona, each with 21 points.
Whether or not the Sooners are the better tonight, the Big Eight still will have cemented its reputation as a dual threat, with first-rate basketball and football teams.
As the amusingly immodest Tubbs puts it in honking the conference's horn, ``We don't take a back seat to anyone in the nation, football or basketball, either one. Let's just admit it, we're great, so what?''