Buffalo, N.Y.? Deerfield Beach, Fla.? Lima, Ohio? Bloomington, Indianapolis and Merrillville, Ind.? Why, those can't be the hometowns of Oklahoma Sooners. Sooners are supposed to come from places like Hooks, Texas or Dallas, or right there at home in Norman. And they run a wishbone, not a fast break. And win Heisman Trophies, not basketball games. Wrong.
Aaron Curry, Al Beal, John McCullough, Terry Stotts, Raymond Whitley and Cary Carrabine came from those un-Soonerlike places, and they play basketball. Played it well enough, in fact, from November through February to win 17 games and give Oklahoma its first Big Eight championship in 30 years. And then last week in Kansas City, just to show that the regular-season title was no fluke, Oklahoma came into Kemper Arena arid won the Big Eight postseason championship as well.
The regular-season championship notwithstanding, few folks figured the Sooners had a chance. After all, Big Eight basketball supremacy belonged to Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri, which had divvied up every title since 1966. Then there was the fact that even though Oklahoma had 10 Big Eight wins, the Sooners had split with Missouri and had been beaten twice by Kansas. Moreover, Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State had young teams that were improving week to week.
"Traditionally, the league is thought of as those three," said Dave Bliss, the Oklahoma coach. "But there's parity now because a while ago the football schools realized that they could make money in basketball." Indeed, new facilities have been built recently at Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa State and Nebraska, enabling former Big Eight basketball have-nots to upgrade programs and attract quality recruits who might have looked elsewhere.
Bliss, 35, a protègè of Indiana's Bobby Knight, is largely responsible for Oklahoma's success. He came to Norman from Indiana four years ago, so steeped in Knight's beliefs that his conversation is still sprinkled with phrases such as "I learned this from Bobby" or "Knight taught me this." Ten years ago, when Bliss was a freshman coach at Cornell, Knight phoned him and persuaded him to join the Army so that he could work with Knight as an assistant at West Point. But after basic training at Fort Dix, Bliss unexpectedly received orders to report to quartermaster school at Fort Lee, Va. After a frantic call to Knight, the orders were countermanded and Bliss was off to West Point. As a taskmaster, Bliss rates himself about knee high to Knight. But then, Bliss has angrily ejected a player from practice "for playing like a patsy" on more than one occasion. And early this season, thinking that his players appeared a bit out of shape, he summoned them at 6 a.m. one day for a brisk four-mile run. "The main thing I learned from Bobby," he says, "is that good players take you farther."
Indeed, good players have taken Oklahoma a far piece. And they had to come from pretty far away to do it. Of Bliss' six regulars, none grew up any closer to Norman than Bloomington, Ind., 800 miles distant. The roster lists no one from the state of Oklahoma. Stotts, a 6'8" dead-eye shooter who averages 15 points a game, is the Bloomington player. Or at least he played there for two years. As a high school sophomore, Stotts played in Guam, where his father coaches basketball at the university. Beal, the center, is a 6'9", 215-pound package from Deerfield Beach, with hands dangling near his knees and legs that give leap a new meaning in Big Eight basketball. The guards are Curry, from Buffalo, an ace defender; Carrabine, from Merrillville, a three-year starter switched to sixth man this season; and Raymond Whitley, from Indianapolis, who forced Carrabine to the bench. At point guard, Whitley orchestrates the four-corner offense and handles the press with a quickness that belies the fact that he is 6'3" and was a standout forward at Manual High. Back then, both Indiana and North Carolina State people visited him often, but Whitley discovered that Knight and Norm Sloan had more desirable recruits. "They jacked him around," Bliss says. "I needed him badly and told him with us he'd play right away."
McCullough, from Lima, and the leading Sooner scorer the past three seasons, was scarcely recruited. Five years ago Bliss was scouting a blue-chipper named Butch Carter for Knight. Carter was a natural, but Bliss couldn't help notice McCullough diving after loose balls even though his team was behind by 30 points. He is a career 49% shooter, the Big Eight MVP and Oklahoma's No. 3 alltime scorer behind Alvan Adams and Don Sidle.
In the semifinals, McCullough canned seven of 10 shots and all five Oklahoma starters were in double figures as the Sooners beat Kansas State 72-68. It was their fourth win over the Wildcats this season, a landmark of sorts because it was the first time in Jack Hartman's nine years at Kansas State that the Wildcats failed to beat each conference team at least once. "I'm happy just to be in the final," Bliss said. "There's not a hair of difference between the four of us."
In the other semifinal, Kansas eliminated Missouri 76-73, silencing critics who had been groaning all year that the Jayhawks had peaked in the preseason polls. With an all-conference guard in Darnell Valentine, and 7'1" Center Paul Mokeski, who had outplayed UCLA's David Greenwood in last year's Western Regional, Kansas had been picked high by both the AP and UPI. Obviously the pollsters were also impressed with Coach Ted Owens' much-publicized follow-the-sun recruiting trip last March in which, by utilizing a Learjet, he signed blue-chip recruits Tony Guy in Maryland, David Magley in Indiana and Mark Snow in California in a single day. But right off, the chemistry went sour. With five seniors gone, the new faces and the old did not blend well. Valentine concentrated on shooting and the fast break, and Mokeski all too often was far from the action. Over a dismal stretch in December and January, the Jayhawks lost six of 11, including one game by 23 points at Oklahoma and three of four in the conference, which dropped them into seventh place.
But following a 96-69 loss at Kansas State, Owens cracked down, ordering Valentine to stop forcing fast breaks and feed the ball to Mokeski. As a result, Mokeski's rebounding improved vastly, his scoring went from 10 a game to more than 17 and the team shooting percentage soared. Kansas won eight of its last 12 games, three of the losses coming by two points each. And among the wins was a 74-62 victory over Oklahoma. No wonder Kansas fans poured into Kemper Arena expecting a championship.
But it was not to be. Beal dominated the boards and Oklahoma drilled in 52% of its shots from the floor. With 8:07 left, Kansas trailed by just 59-53, thanks largely to Mokeski's scrambling for points underneath and torrid outside shooting by Magley, who finished with 16 points. But then Whitley drove for a basket that made it 61-53, Beal slam-dunked off a lob feed from McCullough and Kansas was finished. Whitley scored 22 points, broke the Kansas press wide open and was mainly responsible for holding Valentine to seven points. Beal had 23 points, 22 rebounds and five blocked shots. With :06 left, it was 80-65 and Bliss jumped to his feet, arms raised high, and spun excitedly toward the bench. "We...are...the...Big...Eight...champs," he yelled, pausing between words.
True, even if he had to go outside the Big Eight to pull it off.