Atlanta Seven times I've been fortunate enough to attend an NCAA Final Four. Only once, though, have I seen Kansas University win a national championship. That was, of course, in 1988 and those Danny Manning-led Jayhawks weren't even the best of the seven.
Ah, then, which one of the Magnificent Seven was the best?
Tough question because it's almost impossible to compare eras and the last seven KU Final Four teams cover a period of 31 years.
Still, I'm going to give it a shot because, all things considered, I believe this edition is the best. But it's close.
Here goes, starting at the bottom:
No. 7 1974. Site: Greensboro, N.C. Coach: Ted Owens. Talk about a team without a go-to guy. The late Danny Knight was the leading scorer at just 12.4 points a game. This bunch was clearly overmatched at the Final Four, bowing to Bo Ellis and Marquette in the semifinals and to Bill Walton-led UCLA in the third-place game. This was a good team that featured such players as Roger Morningstar, Rick Suttle, Tom Kivisto and freshman Norm Cook, but it likely never would have advanced under today's seeding process that sends schools out of their region.
No. 6 1988. Site: Kansas City, Mo. Coach: Larry Brown. Yeah, I know this team won it all, but it also lost 11 games and no team has had more defeats and still reached the mountain top. Without question, this WAS a terrific team at the end of the year, but Brown's last club on Mount Oread was beset by injuries, academic woes and dismissals. Never has a Kansas team reached such heights with so much adversity, yet it relied so heavily on Danny Manning that the other starters will be a trivia question some day. (Pssst, they were Kevin Pritchard, Chris Piper, Jeff Gueldner and Milt Newton).
No. 5 1993. Site: New Orleans. Coach: Roy Williams. This was a guard-oriented team with Rex Walters, Adonis Jordan and Steve Woodberry supplying most of the scoring punch. Hot-shooting mainly by Walters carried the Jayhawks to four regional victories, notably an 83-77 win over Indiana in St. Louis that sent KU to the Final Four where the Jayhawks had no answer for North Carolina 7-footer Eric Montross in the semifinals.
No. 4 1971. Site: Houston. Coach: Ted Owens. Dave Robisch didn't dominate for this team like Manning did in '88, but these Jayhawks rode the shooting and rebounding of Robisch to a 14-0 Big Eight record and a trip to the Astrodome, where they bowed to one of John Wooden's many UCLA champs in the semifinals, then dropped a close third-place game to Western Kentucky. Bud Stallworth, who would score 50 points in one game the next year, also filled it up for arguably the best team Owens had in 19 years on Mount Oread. Owens had a juggernaut in 1966, too, but it lost to eventual-NCAA champ Texas-El Paso in double overtime in the regional final.
No. 3. 1991. Site: Indianapolis. Coach: Roy Williams. Solid club that relied on Mark Randall's quickness to the basket inside and Terry Brown's uncanny three-point outside shooting. Probably the deepest team Williams has had. Depth was a factor in Final Four-qualifying 93-81 win over Arkansas in the Southeast Regional championship. The Jayhawks trailed by 12 at halftime, but outscored the Razorbacks by 24 in the second half. KU knocked off North Carolina in the semifinals at the RCA Dome, but bowed to Duke, 72-65, in the championship game.
No. 2 1986. Site: Dallas. Coach: Larry Brown. Without question, Brown's best team at Kansas. It boasted a 7-footer at center in Greg Dreiling, the quintessential power forward in sophomore Manning, two talented wings in Calvin Thompson and Ron Kellogg maybe the sweetest shooter ever to don a KU uniform and Cedric Hunter, a quality point guard whose only weakness was free-throw shooting. On the bench were Archie Marshall, Milt Newton and Mark Turgeon, among others. Unfortunately, in the semifinals at Reunion Arena, Manning and Hunter were in early foul trouble and Duke squeezed out a 71-67 victory.
No. 1 2002. Site: Atlanta. Coach: Roy Williams. Not Williams' best team that accolade belongs to the 34-2 unit of 1997 that featured four future NBA players in Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard, Jacque Vaughn and Paul Pierce but definitely Williams' best Final Four outfit. If coaches could go to a store and buy a team, this is the one they'd purchase. The Jayhawks have two inside players who can score and rebound in Drew Gooden and Nick Collison, two players who can nail the three-pointer in Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Boschee and an athletic, instinctive point guard in Aaron Miles. Add two made-to-order bench players in 6-9 forward Wayne Simien and 6-5 swingman Keith Langford and it's the perfect mix. In fact, Simien and Langford are the reason I ranked the 2002 team ahead of the 1986 bunch.
Wrapping up, note that only two of Nos. 2 through 7 even reached the championship game, emphasizing just how difficult it is. At this stage, fate and luck often mean more than talent and coaching.