Conference play has barely begun and it's already scratch and sniff time in the Big Eight: Scratch the other guys' eyes out, then sniff the heady aroma of the No. 1 ranking in the national polls. Two seasons ago Kansas and Oklahoma pushed everybody else aside and ended up facing each other in the NCAA championship game. Last year the Sooners ascended to the top of the ratings—for one week—before being knocked off by Missouri in the final weeks of the season. Last Saturday afternoon it was Missouri doing the honors once more among the Big Eight brethren. This time the No. 4-ranked Tigers whipped the No. 1-ranked and previously undefeated Jayhawks 95-87 in an encounter that set back the concept of a bitter rivalry between these two schools at least a millennium.
In this age of epithets, fights, recriminations and hurled furniture, Missouri and Kansas might as well have played their poll bowl on the set of The Cosby Show. Why, there wasn't a single intimidating glare, elbow or woof job. Jay-hawk coach Roy Williams was actually observed laughing on the bench as his team's No. 1 position went up in smoke in the final minutes. Before the game, Williams had even given Missouri coach Norm Stewart a rainbow-colored, gift-wrapped box containing a gag exploding golf ball. It was Stewart's birthday.
Still, these were bizarre proceedings in a game for the right to scream "We're Number One!"—as the local folk did into the wee hours and across the streets and watering holes of Columbia, Mo. And well the Tigers might be, because the heir apparent, Georgetown, from the District of Columbia, also fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, losing to a rising Connecticut team 70-65 a few hours after the Jayhawks expired against Missouri. And third-ranked Oklahoma stumbled to its second loss in five days, falling to Arizona 78-74 last Saturday afternoon.
The irony is that Big Eight people used to go begging for recognition in basketball. Now they're so good at the game, they couldn't care less if anybody else knows about their parochial skirmishes.
The Missouri-Kansas meeting was "just another game," according to Stewart, who's known as Brainstormin' Norman now that he's 55 and recovering from colon cancer surgery, which caused him to miss last season's final 14 games and to curtail his sideline histrionics.
"We don't care about Number One," said Lee Coward, Missouri's tough, underrated senior guard and veteran Kansas-killer. "Too much pressure. Let someone else have it." Coward knows all about pressure, having attended a high school in Detroit in which students had to pass through a metal detector before going to class. As a Tiger freshman, Coward twice beat Kansas with final-seconds shots, and on Saturday he scored 20 points while handing out seven assists against the Jayhawks' bewildering array of defenses.
But surely Anthony Peeler, Missouri's brilliant sophomore guard, was excited about the Tigers' imminent rise in the rankings? Against Kansas, Peeler put together a line for the ages that included five baskets and 14 (of 14) free throws for a game-leading 24 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals, in 39 (of a possible 40) exhausting minutes of play. No one else on either team played more than Coward's 35 minutes. "Number One?" said Peeler. "It doesn't matter. This rivalry is so hot, it's got nothing to do with beating Number One. It's enough just beating Kansas."
The other four Tiger starters being Detroit-area natives—and the focus of an NCAA probe into Missouri recruiting practices; honk if your school has not been and is not now under NCAA investigation—Peeler, more than anyone else, has come to symbolize the passions enveloping the border war between the two schools.
Peeler, a 6'4" swingman with astonishing skill in the sometimes conflicting arts of jumping and passing, is from Paseo High School in Kansas City, Mo., where tickets for last week's game were rumored to be available for $500 apiece. The city lies between the Missouri and Kansas campuses, KU's being much closer, and both coaching staffs rushed Peeler hard. When Peeler signed with Missouri, he made it abundantly clear that the only reason he didn't go to Kansas was that the Jayhawks' coach at the time, Larry Brown, could not guarantee how many more hours Brown would be staying in Lawrence.
In the '80s Kansas held a 12-11 edge over Missouri, but the Tigers won five Big Eight championships to the Jayhawks' one. In Kansas's NCAA title-winning season of '87-88, the Jayhawks nipped Missouri twice, by a total of nine points. But last year Peeler scored 15 as Mizzou handed Kansas its worst home defeat in history, 91-66. Still..."With Kansas being Number One and all, I get hassled all the time at home about the Jayhawks," Peeler said after Saturday's game. "This is so sweet, I can't tell you."
Stewart could tell Peeler something about hassling with Kansas. A high school hero in Shelbyville, Mo., back in the early '50s, Stewart was wooed by Phog Allen of Kansas before choosing Missouri and captaining the Tigers in his junior and senior years. He remembers how before games with Kansas, his 1955-56 Missouri team would race down the runways at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence to practice ducking the soda cans and other missiles that would invariably be thrown from the crowd. He also recalls the night in 1954 when a window was mysteriously opened in the visitors' locker room during a game at Kansas so that four inches of snow had piled up in time for Mizzou's halftime chalk talk.
That was the only regular-season game Stewart lost to Kansas as a player; coaching, he's 26-28 against the Jay-hawks. Though he has mellowed over the years, legend has it that Stewart still refuses to let his team spend the night before a game in Lawrence because he doesn't want to spend one nickel of Missouri money in Kansas. "Aww, I just say that to tick those folks off," he says.
Big Eight historians claim that Missouri-Kansas is the oldest athletic rivalry west of the Mississippi. Hostility between the states reached a tragic peak during Civil War days, when Quantrill's Raiders—now we're talkin' serious woofing—slam-dunked across the border from Missouri and burned Lawrence to the ground. Nothing of the kind has happened for more than a century, of course, but the athletic warfare between the states has been hot and heavy. Then there was the football incident in 1969: After Missouri beat Kansas 69-21, Jayhawk coach Pepper Rodgers gave Tiger coach Dan Devine the peace sign from across the field, and Devine gave half of it back. Gridiron fortunes at both institutions have gone the way of Quantrill's Raiders, but the rivalry thrives on the hardwood.
Going into last week's game, Kansas was 19-0 and Missouri 16-1 (the Tigers had lost another border dispute, to Illinois). But Jayhawk forward Ricky Calloway, a transfer from Indiana, echoed recent public opinion concerning his team when he said, "People don't respect us as a Number One team. They question our talent."
It didn't help when Jayhawk guard Kevin Pritchard confessed that Kansas "must look to people like a Saturday YMCA league team." Then a Miami reporter wrote that the Jayhawks "would have trouble jumping over a telephone directory."
"I believe we can jump over two telephone directories," said Williams, the ° pleasant former North Carolina assistant whose system has blatantly out-Heeled the inconsistent Tar Heels this season. "This talent thing...I think talent also includes brains. We won't win most runnin', jumpin', dunkin' contests. But, now, we'll think with anybody."
The silly, hoary, racist stereotype may very well be at work here, inasmuch as Kansas starts four white players and, if Calloway had not come yipping in from Bob Knight's doghouse, would have started five. The Jayhawks' best defender, 6'10" center Pekka Markkanen of Jyvaskyla, Finland, is a good example of the uniqueness of Kansas's lineup. "The guys...they warn me of this rivalry, Missouri," Markkanen said in halting English last week. "It is absolutely different from Finland. But...maybe...like my club team, Honsu, when we play my former team, the Helsinki YMCA."
Kansas played the pre-Big Eight season with a quiet confidence and with what Stewart called a "looseness we all strive for." But as Jayhawk senior Pritchard pointed out, "This league is a different world, especially on the road. When we went in to play LSU at their place and up to New York for Vegas and St. John's [in the preseason NIT games], we just knew we could beat those teams. But going into Columbia for Missouri can be so different...."
The key to any Missouri game is the play of the Tigers' enigmatic 6'10" forward, Doug Smith, whose athletic abilities dwarf those of everyone else in the conference but whose performances in past years sometimes came up as ordinary as his name. Pritchard paid Smith probably the ultimate compliment, coming from a Jayhawk. "He reminds me of Danny Manning," Pritchard said.
But as Kansas took an early 13-4 lead, Smith reminded people more of Danny DeVito before disappearing completely, banished to the bench for more than 7½ minutes in the middle of the first half. In his stead, 6'9" forward Nathan (Breeze) Buntin, Missouri's other question mark—a star as a freshman, Breeze had been virtually blown away by diminished minutes in the last two years—scored seven baskets without a miss and kept Missouri in the game. Kansas led at halftime, 46-43.
"Everybody had stale faces," Peeler said of Missouri's attitude at intermission. "Then Coach came in and reminded us who we were playing. 'Forget they're Number One,' he said. 'Forget the rankings. This is Kansas. The Big Eight. Just go out and play like they're anybody.' "
Which is exactly what the Tigers did in the first five minutes of the second half, when they concentrated on getting the ball inside. Smith made two buckets, Buntin two more. (The tandem would combine for 21 baskets and 45 points that afternoon.) Coward struck from three-point range, then drove for a three-point play. Missouri scored eight of the first 11 baskets of the half for a 61-53 lead with 14:56 left, and Smith was poised for a turnaround from the baseline that would have made the lead a nice, round 10 points. But he missed, and gritty Kansas came on again.
Stewart believes this is his best passing team at Missouri, and in fact, the Tigers' ball movement was beating the Jayhawks' perimeter defenders badly. "It's hard to play pivot defense when you aren't getting much help outside," Williams said. Still, if Missouri is the Guarnerius violin of passing teams, Kansas is the Stradivarius.
Calloway (16 points) caught fire from afar—"I thought he was only an offensive rebounder," Peeler said, "but he was hitting everything"—and when Jayhawk Mark Randall (18 points and eight rebounds) converted another back-cut layup, Kansas had sliced the Missouri lead to a basket (77-75) with 5:25 remaining.
Then, a weird call. As Calloway was tightening up defensively on Missouri's John McIntyre, the Kansas forward slipped and fell. McIntyre attempted to drive to the basket but tripped over the prone Calloway's leg, and an intentional foul was called on Calloway, giving Missouri two free throws plus possession of the ball. At 5:11 left, McIntyre missed one and made one from the foul line; the crusher for Kansas was that Missouri retained possession. "I don't want to say it was the play of the game," Williams said. "But in a game like this, a play like that is magnified."
Five seconds later, Jeff Gueldner of Kansas fouled Peeler, and it didn't take a magnifying glass to reveal what that meant—only a bit of history.
Four days earlier, Peeler had had two free throws at Oklahoma State with nine seconds remaining and the score knotted at 71-71. He missed the first one. "It looked like the Carrier Dome with all that orange waving around," he said. The Carrier Dome? Did this kid's geography class take a field trip to Syracuse, or what? Then Coward strolled over to his teammate at the line and suggested that Peeler get the ball off his palm and onto his fingertips. Peeler made the second free throw for a 72-71 victory.
Last Saturday, Peeler stayed fingertips-perfect. He made both free throws, for an 80-75 lead, and thereafter Kansas never got closer than three points—and never three points with possession. Smith and Peeler scored 16 of Missouri's final 17 points, and the Tigers finished with four starters—Peeler, Coward, Buntin and Smith—contributing 20 points or more.
"This was just a single game," Stewart said afterward, addressing the subject of the No. 1 ranking. "I didn't listen to all the hype. Number One is for the fans; the players and coaches don't pay much attention to it."
O.K., but wasn't this a nice way to celebrate a birthday?
"I'm just glad I'm still having birthdays," Stewart said.
Contending for No. 1 as well as the national championship is the icing on the cake.
As Tiger fans belittled Kansas (top), Peeler jarred the gritty Jayhawks in every category.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Smith ascended from a first-half benching to finish with 23 points and five rebounds.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
For Stewart, an A1 birthday.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Down the stretch, Smith helped ground the fading Jayhawks.