Head coach Danny Manning is no stranger to the NCAA tournament. He led the Kansas Jayhawks to a national championship his senior season in 1988 and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He also played on the Jayhawks’ 1986 squad that reached the Final Four, and to this day remains the NCAA’s eighth all-time leading scorer. After a 15-year NBA playing career, Manning returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach and helped lead the Jayhawks to the championship again in 2008.
On Saturday, Manning earned yet another trip to the big dance, leading the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes to their 11th-straight win, a 69-60 victory over the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in the Conference USA championship game. In just his second year as a head coach, Manning continues to build his basketball résumé with no signs of letting up, leading the Golden Hurricanes to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003. He’s also had to lead his team through recent adversity after one of the team’s seniors, Pat Swilling, was suspended indefinitely pending investigation after a female student filed a rape complaint against him.
Manning’s squad pulled ahead in the closing minutes of Saturday’s game after the Golden Hurricanes continued to attack the paint to counter the Bulldogs’ stellar outside shooting and keep the game close. Sophomore guard James Woodard, a Tulsa native, played 39 of the game’s 40 minutes and led all scorers with 27 points, 18 of them coming in the second half. Woodard shot 8-of-13 from the floor and had a hot hand himself from outside, going 4-of-5 from three-point range. He also sank several clutch free throws down the stretch to put the game away. Rashad Ray, another sophomore, chipped in 15 points off the bench.
Although it’s probably premature at this point to suggest the Golden Hurricanes possess Cinderella potential, they’re clearly a talented team, having emerged as champions in a mid-major conference that, according to Manning, can boast at least three additional teams of NCAA tournament caliber. If anyone can offer an accurate assessment of that type, it’s Danny Manning; and with him calling the plays from the sidelines, the Golden Hurricane could end up turning a lot of heads. After all, March Madness is just getting started.