Missouri stumbled into the Big Eight conference tournament last week, less known by the MISSOURI on its team jerseys than by the nasty title Team Turmoil. Ever since coach Norm Stewart was struck down by cancer a month ago, the Tigers had struggled. On the court, their record was a mediocre 4-4; off it, interim coach Rich Daly was the object of decidedly disrespectful locker-room ridicule.
But somebody in college basketball better figure out how to hold that Tiger, because for three days in Kansas City, nobody, including mighty Oklahoma, could. After a solid 98-86 victory over the Sooners in the championship game, old Mizzou—with Stewart watching from parts unknown and Daly confidently snapping his fashionable suspenders on the sidelines—has become something altogether surprising: a dangerous and versatile outfit.
"I think everyone's trying to [answer the question] 'Are we together?' " Tiger forward Mike Sandbothe said early in the week. Well, the subject had come up. Since Stewart fell ill on a Missouri team flight to Oklahoma on Feb. 9 and was hospitalized for colon surgery, Daly, 48, had struggled with strategy, confidence and insubordination. The interim coach had endured run-ins with everyone from star guard Byron Irvin to 7'1" center-savant Gary Leonard, whom Stewart used to call Socrates because, according to Stewart, he "thinks too much."
"We lacked discipline," admitted Leonard. "We all did stupid stuff we wouldn't do if Coach Stewart was there. His practices used to be verbal abuse, complete hell. We missed that."
Stewart was missed most by center Doug Smith, an extraordinarily athletic 6'10" sophomore from Detroit who makes pro scouts' mouths water. But in Missouri's last five games before the tournament, Smith had underachieved for a total of 27 points and 16 rebounds; against Oklahoma State in February he was benched by an angry Daly for an ill-advised jump shot less than a minute into the contest.
Then Al Eberhard, who had played for the Tigers in the early '70s, was hired to assist Daly, work on Smith's shot and get him to stay down in the low post where his turnaround jumper is nearly unstoppable. In Kansas City the results were dramatic: Smith had 36 points in 47 minutes during Missouri's 98-70 and 88-83 victories over Nebraska and Kansas State, respectively. Oklahoma center Stacey King was not surprised. "They say Smith is in a slump," said King. "But if he's intense and inspired, he can get 30 points and 14 'bounds on you easy."
Forewarned isn't necessarily forearmed. Smith had 22 points and 14 rebounds against the Sooners, including an early rebound dunk and a spinner from the baseline to give Missouri a 15-14 lead. The Tigers never trailed after that as Irvin, who took the role of sixth man because of a groin pull, scored 29 points and, along with guard Lee Coward (15 points and 10 assists), harassed the Sooners' normally trusty shooter and ball thief Mookie Blaylock into a game-deciding 3-for-15 night that included just one lonely steal. As if stopping Blaylock weren't enough to ensure the win, the Tigers also shot a preposterous 66% from the field.
Blaylock wasn't the only Oklahoma disappointment. The supposedly deeper Sooner bench also fell short, scoring only 14 points in support of the again marvelous King, who had 38 points and 10 rebounds in the jaws of a collection of physical inside defenders: Smith, Leonard (16 points, 9 rebounds), Sandbothe, forward Nathan Buntin and Greg Church, the fun forward who once entertained the team by taking a deer's head on board the Missouri bus.
It was Blaylock who apparently lost his head the previous Sunday when he was arrested at 4 a.m. for public drunkenness outside a Circle K convenience store, proving that the Norman police blotter isn't reserved for football players. Tt seems that Blaylock was having an argument with a female friend—make that a former friend—when the cops arrived and hauled him in. Blaylock pleaded no contest to a charge of disturbing the peace, after which Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs suspended him for one game. "I thought Circle K was the junior Kiwanis club," joked Tubbs. "Naw, really. Mookie's a great guy, and that's a pretty damn nice convenience store, too."
What wasn't so convenient for the Sooners was their opening-round game against pitiful (7-20) Colorado. The Buffaloes, without Blaylock's nonstop defensive pressure, played slowdown through two overtimes and nearly produced the first EIGHTH SEED SHOCKS TOP SEED headline in Big Eight tournament history, before falling 95-87. Even the mighty King took a midday snooze before rousing himself for nine important points in the second OT.
"I'm an eye-reader and I see when we're not ready," Tubbs said. "It's not in their eyes. My guys don't really start playing until there's three minutes left. They must think they're playing in the NBA."
In the semifinals against the infant Cyclones of Iowa State and 6'9", 265-pound Victor (Pasta) Alexander (26 points, 10 rebounds, five orders of clam sauce), Oklahoma surely should have lost. The Sooners missed 10 three-point shots, Blaylock was rusty (7-for-20 shooting) and the effervescent King acted the knave, being churlish with the referees, picking up a technical foul, scoring a season-low 14 points and fouling out of the game with 3:35 left. Not once did he crank up his patented roll-the-dice pantomime.
But with the clock winding down on a 74-73 Iowa State victory, the Sooners controlled a missed Alexander foul shot (burp) and got the ball to guard Tyrone Jones. Smack in front of the Oklahoma bench, Jones lifted off for the Sooners' 11th and last trey attempt, a line drive that, if the basket hadn't gotten in the way, would have hit the outfield fence and scored George Brett with the winning run. As it was, the shot swished through and the Sooners escaped again, 76-74, to gain a berth in the championship game. "Hey, never count Oklahoma out," said King, who had as many quality quotes as he had minutes in Kansas City. "We're like a rattlesnake. We can bite and kill at any time."
But it was Missouri that must have felt snakebitten through most of an otherwise fine season (26-7). Controversy swirled around the Tiger program, created by the presence of an NCAA investigator on campus, the suspension of assistant coach Bob Sundvold for buying a player a plane ticket, and the usual surly travails of Stewart. But those problems were mere annoyances compared with Daly's month of misery in the Mizzou zoo:
•Upon being replaced in a Tiger defeat at Kansas State, Leonard and Sandbothe flashed cold glares at Daly, looks which Stewart would have answered by inviting the seniors to hike back to Columbia. Barefoot.
•After Irvin was benched in a victory over Nebraska, he was asked if Daly was just showing his "authority." Irvin snickered. "That makes me laugh," he said.
•Freshman Anthony Peeler's coach at Paseo High in Kansas City, Willie Bowie, revealed that Peeler told him that some practices under Daly "were just like when [Bowie] wasn't at practice. We didn't get anything done."
•In the last regular-season conference game, against Colorado, Leonard refused to go in the game when Daly told him to. "I didn't see any point, because I'd be out in two minutes again anyway," Leonard told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Later Leonard did play, but only after he had left his seat to chat with fans behind the Missouri bench. "Gary's a free speech kind of guy," said Daly.
In Kansas City, however, the Tiger coach and players vowed that their differences were behind them, even as an uptight Daly refused to answer whether Stewart might show up to inspire the team. "If? If? I'm not here to answer 'if questions. We're not an iffy team," the acting coach said on the very day that Stewart, unbeknownst to anybody connected with the team, checked into a Houston hospital for more tests. Even Missouri athletic director Dick Tamburo was unaware of Stewart's whereabouts until told by a Kansas City reporter. "Norm's a very private person, and I just wish he'd let more people get to know him," Tamburo said.
Just before Stewart left his team, the Tigers were ranked No. 3 in the polls. They seem to be reaching that level of play again. When Missouri attacks aggressively at both ends, when the Tigers accept roles and share the ball, when they do not bicker with Daly—in other words, when they put it together the way they did at the Big Eight last week—this is a team to behold.
"We owe them a whippin'; we want Missouri," Oklahoma forward William Davis had said before the game. The Sooners still do, it turns out. But no team in its right mind really wants Missouri right now.