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."