April 2, 2011
HOUSTON (AP) - Too focused on what his team was doing, Billy Tubbs wasn't aware of the dismantling Danny Manning had done to the opposite side of the bracket during the 1988 NCAA tournament.
The former Oklahoma coach was onhand for Manning's crowning moment - a nothing-you-can-do witness to the crowning moment in one of the greatest one-man shows in NCAA tournament history.
This weekend, Tubbs is back at the Final Four, anxious to get a close-up look at another one-man gang: Connecticut's Kemba Walker.
"I don't see many players recently who can take over a game like he can," said Tubbs, now the athletic director at Lamar University in Beaumont, about an hour from Houston in southeast Texas. "He flat-out takes over games. It's really been an amazing run. I know one thing; he could make me a good coach."
The NCAA tournament has had plenty of one-man wolfpacks.
Carmelo Anthony was one in 2003, leading Syracuse to a national title as a freshman. Michigan's Glen Rice averaged more than 30 points while leading the Wolverines to the 1989 championship. A decade before that, Larry Bird took a bunch of no-names at Indiana State to the 1979 title game against Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
Go back even further and players such as Jerry West, Bill Bradley and Bill Russell were the be-all-end-alls of their teams in the NCAA tournament.
The modern standard, though, belongs to Manning.
The leader of the so-called Danny and the Miracles, he took a Jayhawks team filled with role players to a national title no one saw coming. Carrying Kansas single-handedly through six NCAA tournament games, Manning scored in bunches, relentlessly pursued rebounds, swatted shots, jumped into passing lanes - anything he could to make sure the Jayhawks got their title.
Walker is on the cusp of joining him.
Coming off one of the most impressive conference tournaments ever, Walker has willed the Huskies through the bracket and into the Final Four.
Though he probably has more support than Manning, Walker has been the axle to the UConn wheel in the NCAA tournament, scoring 37 percent of its points - 26.8 per game, dishing out more than 50 percent of the assists and nabbing a third of its steals.
"Kemba has always had one quality that I admired most: He loves to prove people wrong," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "Kemba has heard, probably too many times, that he couldn't do certain things. I hope he hears that this week."
From a first-glance perspective, Manning and Walker seem to be vastly different players.
Manning was an athletic, 6-foot-10 forward, good with his back to the basket or facing up to hit a jumper, a big finisher on the break. Walker is a lanky, 6-foot-1 guard, a 3-point and stepback-jumper specialist who's also fearless on drives to the basket against much bigger players.
Manning was reticent with the media, never wanting the attention that came with being the only name among no-names. Walker has a magnetic smile and an easygoing nature in front of the camera, giving thoughtful answers and making sure everyone gets what they need.
Their common ground is an uncommonly competitive inner drive.
Competitiveness is a natural part of college basketball; players don't make it that far if they don't have some fight in them. Not all want the win-or-lose responsibility, however, that comes with trying to take over or hit a big shot.
Manning and Walker do. Game on the line, pressure building, they want the ball in their hands and, more times than not, find a way to come through.
"You can have players who averaged, oh, 25 points a game through the first 37 minutes of a game and they disappeared at the end," Tubbs said. "The two players you're talking about didn't disappear at the end."
Manning proved that in 1988.
Beset by string of injuries, Kansas got off to a 12-8 start and was forced to rally just to get into the NCAA tournament.
Once there, Manning took over.
The junior was impressive in wins over Xavier, Murray State, Vanderbilt and Kansas State to open the tournament, then dominated Duke in the national semifinals.
Manning capped his incredible run with one of the greatest championship-game performances ever, getting 31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals and a pair of blocked shots to lead the Jayhawks to the win over Tubbs' Sooners, who had beaten Kansas twice during the regular season.
"Danny pretty much carried that team, period," Tubbs said.
Walker, for the most part, has done the same thing.
He started at the Maui Invitational, thrusting himself and the Huskies back onto the national stage with three wins over tough opponents, taking over at one point or another in each game. After a few hiccups in the regular season, Walker dominated the BIG EAST tournament, shattering the scoring record by 46 points while leading the Huskies to an improbable five wins in five days.
The All-America player simply kept his foot on the gas in the NCAA tournament, doing whatever it takes to get UConn through.
In the opener against Bucknell, he was the facilitator, handing out 12 assists to go with 18 points. Next two games, against Cincinnati and San Diego State, Walker carried the Huskies by scoring, getting 69 points in the two wins.
For the West regional final against Arizona, Walker did a little of everything, scoring 20 points, handing out seven assists and doing a little coaching, telling Calhoun to run the offense through freshman Jeremy Lamb late because he was being double teamed.
Walker has done all this facing nearly every defense imaginable, from man coverage to double teams to the occasional box-and-1.
He has been, even in his own words, unstoppable.
"How would I stop myself?" Walker said. "I wouldn't be able to."
KEEPING IT CLEAN: Kentucky swingman DeAndre Liggins will be charged with doing something few have been able to accomplish this season: stop Connecticut's Kemba Walker.
Liggins has been saying for weeks he'd like another chance to slow down Walker, who torched Kentucky for 29 points when the two teams met in November, one of the few times this season Liggins failed to shut down an opponent.
He's become one of the country's best defenders, using his massive wingspan to swallow smaller players. The only thing that moves faster than his feet, however, may be his mouth.
Liggins is a notorious trash talker, a ploy he's used for years to get in opponent's heads. He went back and forth with North Carolina's Harrison Barnes all game long in Kentucky's win over the Tar Heels in the East regional final a week ago.
Yet Liggins says he's going to keep to himself on Saturday night.
"I have the utmost respect for Kemba Walker," Liggins said.
Besides, it might not help. Walker is used to defenders jawing at him. Not that he notices so much anymore.
"I can hear them, but that doesn't mean I'm listening to them," Walker said, "I'm just playing."