Behold These Tigers
You can't really blame the nation's pollsters and pundits for adopting a show-me attitude about Missouri. Yeah, sure, the Tigers' 99-83 thumping of Oklahoma last Saturday left them 22-2 for the season and 12-0 in the Big Eight, and it put them only two wins away from becoming the first team in 23 years to go unbeaten in the Big Eight regular season. As a result, Missouri held on to its No. 6 ranking in this week's AP poll, but until a fortnight ago the Tigers weren't even in the Top 10. And that was because of the blinking neon line on their record, a 120-68 blowout at the hands of Arkansas on Dec. 2. "I can't much blame people for doubting us because of that," says 6'2" senior guard Melvin Booker, "but we bounced back and showed our character."
No one personifies Missouri's resilience better than Booker, who arrived on campus as an unheralded recruit and very likely will be the Big Eight's Player of the Year this season. Before Booker even got to play a game in his freshman year, he suffered two jolts. One occurred when the NCAA placed the Tigers on two-year probation. The other happened the same day, when Booker had to maneuver across a creek on a rope as part of an ROTC class. The rope broke, dumping him into the water. Booker lost three front teeth in the fall and underwent five hours of oral surgery to repair the damage. After the surgery the dentist told Missouri coach Norm Stewart, "That is one tough kid you have there."
Booker's toughness is manifested in other ways. He has scored 10 or more points in the first half only five times this season. But he has scored 10 or more in the second half 16 times. The Tigers' Feb. 20 win over Kansas in Lawrence was vintage Booker. Missouri trailed by nine points with 10:27 to go, but in the final 8:26 Booker scored 17 of the Tigers' 28 points to lift them to an 81-74 victory. Booker finished the game with 32 points, and Jayhawk coach Roy Williams said, "He is sensational. All those recruiting experts...it just shows what they know, because he was not very highly recruited out of high school. But he has passed just about every guard in college basketball at times."
Booker, who grew up in Moss Point, Miss., came to Missouri only because Tiger assistant Rich Daly saw something in him that escaped the notice of Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi, none of which offered Booker a scholarship. Noting that Missouri had been ranked No. 1 for a while during his senior year in high school, Booker says, "I kept wondering why no school in my own state wanted me but the top team in the nation did."
As tough as Booker is, his coach may be that much tougher. Since surviving a bout with colon cancer in 1989, Stewart hasn't been quite the same Stormin' Norman of old, but he's still a feisty presence on the sideline. Whether the 59-year-old Stewart is appearing in a ridiculous-looking chef's hat for a bit on a Kansas City TV station, polishing off a greasy cheeseburger and chili with his staff at Booche's pool hall in Columbia or joining his wife, Virginia, to play host to an engagement dinner for their daughter, Laura—all of which he did the day before the game against Oklahoma—Stewart seems determined to enjoy each day to its fullest. "When I found out that I was going to end up on the right side of the green grass, I began appreciating things a little more," Stewart says. At the moment his major off-court project is to supervise Norm's Special Challenge, a statewide three-point-shooting contest that is expected to raise $400,000 this year for cancer research.
"The way Coach Stewart handled his cancer shows what a tough person he is," Booker says. "He really bounced back, and that's pretty much what we try to do on the court. We try to do what he did, just keep fighting."
When it comes to the Tigers' fighting the good fight, Stewart worries about their lack of height. Missouri's strongest inside player is 6'9", 241-pound Jevon Crudup, who may one day be a power forward in the NBA but is forced to play center for the Tigers. In a practice last week Crudup began shooting jumpers instead of working on his inside game. "No more paint for me," he yelled to Stewart. "I'm a perimeter man now." Stewart rolled his eyes and ordered Crudup to resume working on his power moves.
But just because Mizzou is short doesn't mean the Tigers are small. "I don't know if I've had a shorter team, but I've had a lot that weighed less," says Stewart. Of Missouri's top eight players, only Booker and 6'5" guard Julian Win-field weigh less than 200 pounds. The Tigers like to throw their beef around, too. Their picks are tougher to fight through than any block thrown of late by Missouri's hapless football team. In fact, Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs gripes that the Tigers get away with so much roughhousing on defense that the Big Eight referees seem to be calling games by "Norm's rules" instead of the ones in the official rule book.
On Saturday it didn't do much for Tubbs's already sour disposition when Mark Atkins, a 6'5", 230-pound senior guard, came off the Tigers' deep bench and knocked down 7 of 11 three-point attempts to bury the Sooners' upset hopes. Atkins is a former juco player, as is junior walk-on Paul O'Liney, who scored 21 points playing in place of the injured Win-field. "I love to come off the bench and get the team jump-started," says Atkins. "I may be a sub, but I'm not a weak link." Also contributing to the cause is freshman whiz Kelly Thames, a 6'7" Scottie Pippen play-alike who helped stop the Sooners with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
As for Stewart, he doesn't look too far down any road, the road to the Final Four included. But, yeah, he admits he would "enjoy the hell" out of just one trip to the big show, a pleasure that has eluded him in his 27 years at Missouri, during which the Tigers have often been early-round flops in the NCAA tournament (remember their loss to Xavier in 1987? To Rhode Island in '88? To Northern Iowa, for heaven's sake, in '90?). "I know we have a lot to prove, but I like the idea of proving yourself all the time," Stewart says. "This program is going to get there sooner or later. I just hope I'm around to make the trip."
Free throw shooting in Division I has hovered around 66.3% this season, the worst it has been in 40 years, and like just about everyone else, Georgia coach Hugh Durham has a theory about the cause of the decline. "Every time a guy gets ready to shoot on the line, he spends all his time slapping skin," says Durham. "He makes one, he slaps skin. He misses one, he slaps skin. Instead of concentrating on making the free throw, you've got to make sure you've got all four high fives in before you get ready to shoot again." ...Kansas broke a three-game losing streak, its first in five years, by humiliating Big Eight doormat Colorado 106-62 last Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse. Though the Jay-hawks had their biggest point total of the season and their biggest rebounding night ever, with 72, coach Roy Williams wasn't satisfied. First he complained that the game wasn't a sellout, there having been 600 empty seats in the 15,800-seat arena. Then he fumed that Kansas fans weren't enthusiastic enough during the 44-point annihilation. "We're spoiled rotten, and our fans are spoiled rotten," Williams said. "I told the team, 'Let's make our own enthusiasm even if it's not as loud out there as it usually is.' I could yell at the players, and they could hear me today." Maybe with some serious crowd noise, you could have really blown Colorado out, right, Coach? ...Who will have the tallest front line in the nation next season? Altitudinous Duke? Cloud-capped North Carolina? Try York College, an NAIA Division II school of 442 students in York, Neb., that was a junior college until seven months ago. York, which has amassed a 6-20 record in its first season as a four-year college, has a verbal commitment from 6'11" Larry Hoover of Tulsa and has also just enrolled 6'10" OlsusoIa Odukomaiya of Lagos, Nigeria. When Odukomaiya arrived on campus, he told coach Rod Baxter about his older brother, Segun, who is 7'4". Baxter quickly began arrangements for Segun to attend York, a Christian college, next year as well....
Students at Cal State-Northridge, whose campus was at the center of the Jan. 17 Los Angeles earthquake, have started calling their gym the Epicenter....
Despite her promising name, East Tennessee State forward DeShawne Blocker is not much for blocking shots—she has only nine in 24 games—but she is a master of blocking out. The 6-foot junior was leading the nation with 17.5 rebounds a game at week's end, 2.8 more than men's leader Jervaughn Scales (page 68) of Southern.
After a rough start, Booker is having a ball at Missouri.
Players of the Week
Purdue's 6'8" junior forward, Glenn Robinson, the nation's leading scorer, had 70 points and 15 rebounds as the Boilermakers beat Ohio State 95-85 and Penn State 71-66.
Stanford's Anita Kaplan, a 6'5" junior center, scored a career-high 34 points as the 11th-ranked Cardinal beat No. 6 USC 80-50, and added 20 points in a 94-82 win over UCLA.
John Pierce, a 6'8" center at Lipscomb University, scored his 4,110th point, replacing Lipscomb's Philip Hutcheson (1986-90) as the alltime collegiate scoring champ.