In 1987, K-State had finished in fourth place in the Big Eight, but with enough gravitas to garner a ninth seed in the NCAA Tournament. Led by first-team all-conference selection Norris Coleman and junior college transfer Mitch Richmond (named to the second team), the Cats upset Georgia in the first round before falling to top-seeded UNLV two days later. It was K-State's first trip to the post-season since 1982, and a perfectly acceptable debut season for head coach Lon Kruger.
Expectations for the 1987-88 season were positive with Richmond returning, as well as sophomore sharpshooter Steve Henson and seniors William Scott and Chuck Bledsoe. The Big Eight, however, had two 800-pound gorillas: Oklahoma, led by Stacey King, Harvey Grant, and Mookie Blaylock, and Kansas, featuring two-time defending Big Eight Player of the Year Danny Manning.
Those expectations were, to put it mildly, exceeded. The 1987-88 Wildcats check in at #6 in our countdown.
The season opened at the Sun West Classic in Fresno, which the Cats won by dispatching San Diego State and Fresno State. The team notched home wins over Cal State-Northridge and UMKC before a victorious trip to Creighton. Then came disaster. Southwest Missouri State came to town, and an epic four-overtime battle ensued. The Bears came out on top, 82-80. Southern Mississippi came calling nine days later and won by three, and then the Wildcats visited #12 Purdue and were obliterated 100-72.
A win at Utah State followed, then a resounding victory over Marquette in Kansas City. A return visit to Southern Mississippi (what was it with same-season home-and-homes with the Golden Eagles?) resulted in a two-point loss. There were still two non-conference games lurking, but conference play was about to begin and K-State looked vulnerable at 7-4 with third-ranked Oklahoma -- averaging 112 points per game -- set to visit.
The Cats held Oklahoma to 50 points below their season average, and Richmond poured in 33 points. It took eight free throws from Richmond and Fred McCoy to ensure the result, but K-State beat Oklahoma 69-62 in Manhattan for the first time since 1982. That started the ball rolling. The Cats beat Wichita State at home, then hit the road for wins at Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Kansas. Iowa State, ranked #16, fell in overtime in Manhattan, as did Nebraska. At 6-0 in the league and 14-4 overall, K-State finally slipped into the poll at #14.
They tumbled right back out, as they lost by four at Missouri then went to Norman and allowed the fourth-ranked Sooners to roll up 112 in a 17-point loss. Back home, the Cats beat Colorado, lost by a point to Kansas, and then hammered Northern Illinois. The regular season ended with four straight wins, and K-State had managed to go 11-3 and earned sole possession of second place.
Nebraska was dispatched in the first round of the conference tournament, leading to a third meeting with Kansas. Richmond bolted out of the gate, scoring eight points early as the Wildcats jumped out to a 23-8 lead; that margin held as Richmond finished with 21 and K-State pounded the Jayhawks 69-54. In the final, Stacey King exploded for 34 points. Henson had 20 and Richmond 19 for the Cats, but Oklahoma prevailed 88-83 in a surprisingly close game given the teams' previous meeting.
K-State snagged the fourth seed in the Midwest, and Mitch Richmond earned first-team all-conference and second-team consensus All-American honors. The Cats packed up and headed to South Bend.
First up was LaSalle, riding a 15-game winning streak on the shoulders of Lionel Simmons, the third-greatest scorer in NCAA history. Simmons stung the Cats for 20, but Richmond outdueled him, punching in 30 in a 66-53 win. In the process, Richmond broke Bob Boozer's single-season school scoring record. Two days later, K-State again got the better of a star. DePaul's Rod Strickland scored 19, but so did Richmond. Scott was 7-8 from beyond the arc to lead everyone with 23, and the Wildcats moved into the Sweet Sixteen with a 66-58 win.
Both K-State and Kansas then traveled to Pontiac, Michigan for the Midwest Regional. Kansas put away Vanderbilt, while the Wildcats were faced with a daunting task: top-seeded Purdue, to whom they'd lost by 22 earlier in the season. Purdue opened the game with a 10-0 run and things looked grim, but the Cats chipped away, getting to within 24-23 midway through the half. Purdue reasserted itself, though, and led 43-34 at the half.
After the break, the Wildcats responded again. Midway through the second half, the game was tied at 54 when the Cats went on a 12-3 run, eight of those points from Richmond. Purdue responded with a run of its own, closing to within four points with 3:32 to go. Ron Meyer missed the second of two free throws, and Everette Stephens drained a three for the Boilermakers, and it was 69-67 with a minute and a half left. The Cats made four of six from the stripe the rest of the way, though, while Purdue only managed another Stephens trey. K-State had knocked off the #1 seed, Richmond scoring 27 and Scott 17, and were headed for the Elite Eight... against the arch-rival Jayhawks.
K-State jumped out to a 36-29 lead, but Kansas began chipping back. Manning was held in check, "only" scoring 20, but K-State's defensive scheme was intended to stop him. It didn't stop him from feeding Milt Newton or Scooter Barry, who recorded 18 and 15 respectively. Still, the game remained tight until the final three minutes... when Kansas buried eight straight points, and in the process buried K-State's season with a 71-58 win. Kansas, of course, went on to beat Duke, then Oklahoma in the final, leaving a whole score of what-ifs for the Wildcats.
It was a great year. Personally, it was the first truly successful year I was fully invested in, coming after my years in Manhattan; the loss to Kansas was the first time the Wildcats had truly broken my heart. It still, to me, ranks higher than the 2010 Elite Eight run -- because of the import of the Elite Eight matchup, sure, but also because our expectations were not quite as high in 1988 as they were in 2010, where K-State's seed line alone indicated an Elite Eight trip. In 1988, the Cats got one step further than they "should" have... but then lost a game they "should" have won.