Every time it looks as if Missouri will yield to the inevitable and lose its lead in the Big Eight race, Willie Smith makes a twisting layup or a fall-away jumper. The Tigers, picked to finish third in the conference before the season, still have three games to go and may yet fall apart, but Smith, the player nobody wanted, starring at a school where few people care, seems determined to prevent a collapse. Willie, you are fooling with Mother Nature, and that's not nice.
Last week, while second-place Kansas State was zipping through Nebraska and Kansas with little difficulty, the shaky Tigers were edging the Jayhawks 61-60 and beating the Cornhuskers 95-84 in overtime. The two nonlosses raised Missouri's record to 22-3 and maintained its one-game lead over the fast-closing Wildcats, who play the Tigers at home next week. All portents seem to favor Kansas State, but Smith, a slender 6'2" left-handed senior guard, favors the Tigers. And so far that has been sufficient.
When Smith beat Kansas on Wednesday with a last-second tip-in it was his second winning basket in eight days, following similar heroics in a victory over Oklahoma State. His free throw with 1:03 remaining sent Saturday's Nebraska game into overtime and he finished with 31 points. Play like this has aroused hopes for Missouri's first conference title in 36 years. Almost 12,000 fans turned out for the Cornhusker game, twice the normal crowd.
Smith's 24.4-point average makes him the leading scorer in the conference and the only player in Missouri history to exceed 20 points a game in his career. While the Tigers were breaking a school record with their 22nd victory against Nebraska, Smith was surpassing the school's single-season scoring mark of 604, which he set last year.
A wide variety of skills should make him Missouri's third first-round draft choice in the past four years, succeeding John Brown (Atlanta) and Al Eberhard (Detroit). Smith is a solemn performer with a nice change-of-pace dribble and a soft, sweet jump shot. He also rebounds, plays good defense and looks for the open man, virtues not often seen in a high-scoring guard.
But then, Smith has not always been a high scorer. He attracted little major-college attention after averaging 14 points a game at Seminole (Okla.) Junior College two years ago. Coach Norm Stewart brought him to Missouri to provide ball handling, playmaking and defense.
There is a trace of bitterness in Smith's voice as he speaks of his rejection by other schools, "When Nevada, Las Vegas in my own hometown didn't recruit me," he says, "I wrote to the coach at San Francisco. They were in the same league then, and I wanted to show Las Vegas it had made a mistake. But then I didn't hear from San Francisco. I was glad to get a chance to come to Missouri so I could play against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. I played junior-college ball in that state, but they weren't interested in me, either."
Despite his reputation as a clutch performer, Smith says he does not enjoy playing in a close game, "but I want to take the last shot, because I'd rather flub it than make somebody else do it." Earlier in the year last-second heroics were not needed from anyone. Until they lost at home to Kansas State on Feb. 4, the Tigers had dominated the league, beginning with their victory in the Big Eight's preseason tournament, their fourth in five years. One of the teams Missouri beat was K-State. If the Tigers are to win, it appears they now will have to find a way to defeat KSU in Manhattan, something they have not done since 1966. If the Wildcats won to tie up the race, they would receive the automatic NCAA tournament berth because of their two wins over Missouri.
Smith feels the pressure is on Kansas State, not Missouri. "We're ahead," he says. "They have to beat us. It should be interesting." It should. After the Wildcats defeated Kansas 69-54 last Saturday K-State students unfurled a banner that read BRING ON MIZZOU, and Guard Mike Evans said, "My head is kind of concentrating on Missouri."
When the time comes, he had best concentrate on Willie Smith.