Evan Manning grew up immersed in Kansas basketball, where he was a Jayhawks walk-on and his dad, Danny, was a star player and assistant coach.
Evan was also a fan of college basketball and compelled to own a pair of Gonzaga shorts as a youngster.
“I was at Kansas for so long, around the program for as long as I can remember,” Manning said. “My dad started coaching there when I was in fourth grade.
“I grew up a Kansas fan and a fan of college basketball. I remember I had a pair of Gonzaga shorts. I didn’t know much about Gonzaga. I knew they were a small school and they won a lot. When I got the opportunity to come out (to Spokane) I jumped at it.”
Manning is in his first season as a graduate assistant with the top-ranked Zags, who open the season Thursday against No. 6 Kansas in Fort Myers, Florida.
“It’s crazy to me,” the 27-year-old laughed. “First game, Kansas, of course, but it’s been really cool.”
The matchup stirs Manning’s memories of four years in the KU program and longtime friendships with coach Bill Self and son, Tyler, and assistant Norm Roberts and son, Niko.
Playing at Kansas “was something I didn’t realize was predestined, but I think everybody else did,” Manning said. “I always had a dream of playing college basketball. I explored other options, but it was KU for me. That was my home and where my roots were.”
Manning played for the Jayhawks from 2013-16, arriving as his dad was exiting to become head coach at Tulsa. Evan’s time at KU coincided with Tyler’s four years and overlapped with the final two seasons of Niko’s career.
“I look up to them (KU coaches) and I talk to them every now and then,” Manning said. “Tyler and Niko are two of my best friends and I talk to them all the time. I feel like I have a close connection to the program.”
Manning coached at the youth level after finishing at Kansas and then joined his father’s staff at Wake Forest as director of player development for the last three years. Danny Manning, who led Kansas on an improbable run to the 1988 national championship, was fired in April after six seasons as Wake Forest’s head coach. He’s joining ESPN as a basketball analyst.
Evan reached out to his former prep school coach, Pete Hutchins, who put Manning in touch with Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. Evan said his GU duties “are whatever they need, but more managerial things, especially with COVID-19 going on and not having a full staff of managers.”
Manning wants to stay in the coaching profession. He said he’s been fortunate to be around his father and the head coaches in Thursday’s showdown.
“Two different personalities,” he said. “Coach Self is real fiery. Coach (Mark) Few is different. He picks and chooses his points to emphasize and knows exactly what affects winning. I love being around him, it’s a whole different viewpoint than any coaches I’ve been around.”
GU-KU will be “two heavyweights going at it,” Manning said. “Coach Self is in the Hall of Fame and I’m sure coach Few is going to be in the Hall of Fame. They have different styles if you look at last year’s teams. Coach Self’s teams typically have been great defensively and coach Few’s are always great offensively and pick up the pace. It’ll be interesting to see what happens without any preseason scrimmages or exhibitions.”
Manning knows his dad and buddies Tyler Self and Niko Roberts will be watching the game on television.
“I’ve got a lot of friends on the fence right now,” Manning said. “I’m trying to sway them to Gonzaga’s side. I play Xbox with those guys all the time and I’m sending them Gonzaga gear. I’m trying to get them to wear it.”
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