I believe in the star theory," says Oklahoma coach and impresario Billy Tubbs. "I love stars. I want to put an exciting show on the road. That's my style." Tubbs's style has become the Big Eight's style—run it, gun it and keep your best side to the camera. This season the nation's fastest-rising basketball conference should shake its dowdy image for good. The Big Eight has players with marquee value: Danny Manning, the Kansas All-America, may be the best college player in the land, and Missouri's rascally Derrick Chievous and Iowa State's Jeff Grayer are scene-stealers of the first order.
The coaches are even joining the act. Iowa State's Johnny Orr raised eyebrows a few years back by walking onto the home floor to a thundering "Heeeeere's Johnny!" Kansas's first practice, at midnight, is called Late Night with Larry Brown and is complete with comics and bands. The latest convert is Norm Stewart, Missouri's scowling disciplinarian. Last year, a made-over Stewart sang and danced with his players in a rap video and starred as Count Dracula in a Halloween basketball promotion.
It works. Big Eight attendance has risen by about 3,500 a game during the past decade. Conference television revenues jumped from $65,000 in 1977-78 to $2.1 million in 1984-85. And next April the Big Eight will host the greatest hoop show on earth, the Final Four, at Kansas City's Kemper Arena.
Recognition has not come easily. For years television shunned the conference because its schools are situated in low-population states. The Big Eight's image as a walk-the-ball-up-the-court league didn't help, either, nor did its funky old arenas. "We had a problem selling the league," says former Kansas coach Ted Owens, who took the Jayhawks to the Final Four in 1971 and 1974. "And even when you won the league, your own people said, 'So what?' "
But new arenas and better coaching began to attract blue-chippers like Wayman Tisdale ( Oklahoma) and Steve Stipanovich and John Sundvold ( Missouri). By 1984-85 the Big Eight quietly led the country in scoring with an average of 71.3 points per team per game. In 1986 five Big Eight schools made the NCAA tournament; four made it last time. This season it could be six.
Missouri is the deepest and most talented team Stewart has had in his 20 years there. He can thank himself for that. The stern, country-bred Stewart, who used to chew so vigorously on his freshmen recruits that some would quit school, now gladly suffers the antics of superstar, superflake Chievous and fun-loving guard Lynn Hardy. Every starter is back from last season's conference championship team, and transfer guard Byron Irvin ( Arkansas) will give the Tigers the one thing they lacked last year: a good three-point shooter. A defensive whiz, Irvin often matched up with Chievous in practice last season. "If you're a good scorer, he can make you change your shot," says Chievous. "If you're an average scorer, he'll shut you down." The Tigers, upset in the NCAA last March by Xavier of Ohio, haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1982. Figure that to change.
At Kansas, Brown's Jayhawks may be too unsettled at guard to overtake Missouri, but with the 6'11" Manning back for his final year, they can hardly be counted out. KU hasn't lost at Allen Field House since Feb. 22, 1984—a streak that hangs mostly on Manning's devastating jump hook. Archie Marshall, who missed last season with a knee injury, and shooting guard Kevin Pritchard can score big against teams that swarm Manning.
Oklahoma is without stars this year, despite the Tubbs theory. But the Sooners do have an astounding five juco transfers to fill the gaps between talented point guard Ricky Grace (191 assists last season), center Stacey King and senior forward Harvey Grant. "People in Oklahoma are still in love with Wayman Tisdale, but I'll do the best I can," says the modest Grant. Last season that was plenty good—16.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
The health of the Big Eight is apparent in its robust middle ranks. Kansas State was better than expected last year, thanks to the emergence of guard Mitch Richmond, another juco transfer. Iowa State, a disappointing 13-15 last season, expects to sell out Hilton Coliseum for the third straight season, in no small part because of the explosive Grayer, who averaged 23.4 points a game in '86-87. Says Orr, "Everything is Manning this and Manning that. Jeff belongs in the same class."
Oklahoma State coach Leonard Hamilton, recruiter supreme, won only eight games in his first season with the Cowboys, but he has begun to stockpile Bylaw 5-1-(j) casualties. While those players study up for next year, senior guard Todd Christian and 7'4" Englishman Alan Bannister (see box) will entertain the fans this year at refurbished and renamed Gallagher-Iba Arena. Nebraska, 21-12 last year and an NIT semifinalist, must rebuild, and Colorado, struggling for respectability, lost top scorer and rebounder Matt Bullard, who transferred to Iowa.