KU vs. Michigan St., 1986

It's been 23 years, but the sweet memories have all come racing back. Ever since KU and Michigan State won their second-round games of the NCAA tournament to set up a Sweet 16 matchup tonight in Indianapolis, I couldn't help but reflect back to March 21, 1986 at Kemper Arena in Kansas City.

It was the last time the Jayhawks and Spartans met in the Sweet 16.

And it's a game I'll never forget.

I was a sophomore at KU at the time, and my friend and I headed to Kansas City that early Friday evening without tickets, but lots of cash in our wallets.

We wanted to see the Jayhawks in the Big Dance, and we were prepared to pay scalpers' prices. As it turns out, we got a decent deal from an Iowa State fan (the Cyclones were playing North Carolina State in the early game) and headed into Kemper Arena.

This was my first NCAA tournament game I ever saw KU play in person, and I  wanted to savor every moment.

Legendary former KU announcer Max Falkenstien certainly did.

"The KU-Michigan State encounter ranks as one of the most entertaining college basketball games I've ever witnessed," Falkenstien wrote in his book, "Max and the Jayhawks."

My friend and I had great seats about eight rows behind KU's bench. I had my game face on, heckling and yelling at Spartans' star guard Scott Skiles all night and cheering for my crimson and blue.

The exact details of the majority of the game are vague, but the last few minutes of regulation and overtime remain vivid. The game was tight most of the evening with Jud Heathcote's Spartans up two points with 2:16 remaining.

And then the controversy began.

Michigan State had the ball while the clock stopped for 15 seconds. Heathcote went storming to the referees to complain, while KU coach Larry Brown argued that Heathcote should receive a technical for leaving the coach's box. With junior guard Mark Turgeon trying to hold his coach back, Brown got hit with a ‘T" when his rolled-up program accidentally hit referee Bob Dibler's whistle.

Michigan State took advantage and made two free throws plus another basket to build its lead to 80-74 with just 1:08 remaining in regulation.

But the Spartans soon missed two front ends of a one-on-one, giving KU last life. Down 80-78, junior swingman Archie Marshall tipped in a missed baseline jumper by senior guard Calvin Thompson with nine seconds remaining. I jumped to my feet as the partisan KU crowd roared and shook the building.

Skiles missed a desperation heave at the buzzer, and this game was headed into overtime.

With stars Danny Manning and Ron Kellogg fouling out in the final minutes of regulation, Kansas City native Thompson became the hero in OT, carrying KU with eight of his game-high 26 points as the Jayhawks won 96-86.

"I was the leader. It had to be me," Thompson told me several years ago. "We could depend on everybody."

Coincidentally, both KU coach Bill Self and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo were a part of that game as graduate assistants for the Jayhawks and Spartans, respectively. Self said his memories of that game are a little foggy.

"I was probably sitting about 20 rows up, worrying about the concession stand or whatever," Self said. "I didn't have many responsibilities back then. But I do remember the clock malfunction, whatever it was. I remember Coach Heathcote not being very pleased during that stretch.

"But the thing about Michigan State that I most remember is they had a guy, Skiles (20 points, seven assists) that was unbelievable, hard to guard. We were very fortunate to win that game. They were really good."

Izzo has clear memories of the battle.

"I do remember that game very, very well because I was a GA that sat there and one of my jobs at the end was to watch the clock," Izzo said. "When it wasn't moving, and I told Jud, he more or less told me where to go because I don't think he believed me.

"When he found out it really wasn't moving, he went down and very ‘quietly' informed the scorekeeper that the clock wasn't moving," Izzo added with a smile.

"I always talk(ed) to Larry Brown when he was with the Pistons (as head coach) about that. We kind of laughed. I told Danny Manning (KU assistant coach) when he was at our place (Breslin Center last January for KU-MSU game) that we got ripped off. I was really just kidding."

Izzo said he learned a "good lesson that game."

"We got back in the locker room, and I remember how upset Jud was," Izzo said,  "because we had our chance to win it. We missed some free throws. Yet we had an incredible year (23-8), overachieved in everybody's mind. He made a comment, ‘The problem is, you don't know, you may never get back.'

"As I've watched some of the great coaches, I watch my own program, I catch myself wondering when you'll get another chance. That's where, like last weekend (opening two rounds in the Big Dance in Minneapolis), I explained to our players that every play of every game does matter. ... You have to embrace that, understand it, and do your best to make sure that every single play of every single game does have a purpose, whether it's a missed free throw, whether it's a missed free-throw rebound, all the things that happen. Because we were this far from moving on (in 1986) and didn't.

"As I look back, Jud never got farther than that the rest of the years I was an assistant."

But KU did in 1986. The Jayhawks went on to beat North Carolina State in the Elite Eight and advanced to their first Final Four since 1974, where they lost to Duke.

KU (35-4) won the most games in school history (since broken by the 2007-08 national championship team's 37 victories) and remains the best shooting team in Jayhawk annals with a scorching 55.6 field goal percentage. The sophomore Manning led four players in double figures that season with 16.7 points per game, followed by senior forward Kellogg (15.9 ppg), Thompson (13.4 ppg), senior center Greg Dreiling (11.6 ppg) and junior guard Cedric Hunter (9.1 ppg).

Brown has said time and again that was the best college team he's ever coached.

"From top to bottom, it was as talented as any team I've ever been around," Brown told the 1998 ESPN Regional Television video, "A Century of Tradition: Kansas Basketball."  

"Night in and night out, I think that team played up to its potential as much as any team I've ever been associated with. I think if any team deserved to win a national championship, that team probably deserved it as much as any."

KU didn't win the title, but the Jayhawks fulfilled their destiny by making the Final Four in Dallas. That didn't seem too likely, though, down by six points with over a minute remaining against Michigan State.

But like the 2008 NCAA championship team (down by nine points to Memphis with over two minutes left in regulation) the 1985-86 Jayhawks believed they could win.

And so does Self's team that will battle Michigan State tonight. Maybe 23 years from now, I'll reflect back to the magical memories KU could make tonight ...just as I do every now and then about that memorable evening at Kemper Arena on March 21, 1986.

Let the Sweet 16 "Madness" begin.

Editor;s Note: The author used research material from "Crimson and Blue Handbook," "Max and the Jayhawks," and "Kansas Jayhawks: History Making Basketball," for this story.

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