After approximately 60 days and 60 nights, the college basketball season was supposed to put the finishing touches on that Rozellian paradise fashionably known as parity. UCLA and Wichita State had been KO'd by the NCAA; North Carolina and Virginia had been erased in the ACC; Kentucky and Louisville had been grazed in the Bluegrass; Georgetown had been jumped, Idaho exposed, Texas taken and all the other contenders nicked at least once. Surely now it was Missouri's turn to face the music. Time: last Saturday afternoon. Opponent: Kansas State. Site: Ahearn Field-house, Manhattan, Kans. Prospect: curtains. In two tones of purple.
Missourians practically beg for this, of course. Any state whose slogan is a put-up or shut-up demand for action must anticipate a similar attitude when its favorite basketball team appears so clean-cut and non-nasty, so unprepared for the vicious struggle, so...so average. Show me? "Even our own students figure we're about to lose each time out," says Jon Sundvold, the Tigers' underrated junior guard. "We must look it."
Whether Missouri—deep, talented, cerebral, No. 1 in the AP and UPI polls, No. 2 in SI's—is better than the higher-priced spreads was still difficult to ascertain Saturday after the Tigers had gotten fewer shots, rebounds, steals and blocks than the home team while botching seven of 15 free throws—normally their hole card. But what Missouri did do at Kansas State, which had a 14-4 record at week's end and was ranked 17th by SI, was hang tough in its oppressive man-to-man defense, overcome a pitiful showing by its star scorer, Ricky Frazier, shoot 60.5% as a team and ultimately defeat its bitter Big Eight Conference rival 59-58 to remain the only unbeaten Division I team in the land. Show the Tigers parity and they'll show you 18-0.
The last two times Missouri played Kansas State on a roll of 17 straight were in the seasons of 1919-20 and 1920-21. The Wildcats halted the streak on both occasions. "A lot of people have died between then and now," said Missouri Coach Norm Stewart. One of the deceased, Harry Truman, was just a local politico back then, and Prince Bridges might have been the moniker of a hustler in some Kansas City speakeasy.
Prince Bridges? Nowadays in the Big Eight, Prince Bridges is a code word for danger among Mizzou opponents. The 6'1", 160-pound Bridges, out of Tyler ( Texas) JC, is the smallest Tiger starter, but he made the biggest play of Missouri's season so far by scoring the winning basket in a 44-42 squeaker at Nebraska. He made another stunner on Saturday when he went back-door—Bridges doesn't merely run through the back door, he leaps over it—to convert the business end of a rainbow pass from Sundvold by tomahawking a breathtaking slam dunk. It was Bridges' first and only bucket of the afternoon, and though it came with more than 13 minutes left, it was just the kind of surprise that had swung Mizzou-Kansas State games in the past. It seemed to do so again.
Kansas State Coach Jack Hartman, the sweet scientist with the sour disposition, deserves every bit of his reputation as one of the game's brilliant tacticians—who can forget his systematic assassination jobs on San Francisco, Oregon State and Illinois in last year's NCAAs?—yet Stewart has put the whammy on him in recent years in Ahearn, winning five of their last seven meetings there. Once Stewart had a center check Wildcat Guard Mike Evans. Once he had a guard check Wildcat muscleman Ed Nealy. Another time Mizzou's Willie Smith bounced an inbounds pass off the back of a K-State player, grabbed the ball and scored a key basket.
Before last week's renewal, Stewart stoked the flames by explaining, macho-like, his aversion to zone defenses. Naturally, Hartman's familiar, suffocating 3-2 zone was the target. "A zone is like a bunch of hens in a brood," Stewart said. "It's an admission—like saying, 'We're no good, so let's all get together in a knot and try to protect ourselves.' "
Somebody mentioned that a home-team defeat would mean that K-State had laid an egg, but Hartman, who is said to have last smiled when the hostages came home, kept his record intact. The coach's voice had practically died along with his team at Oklahoma State earlier in the week when Nealy, mired in some sort of funk, took just one shot in 31 minutes during a 56-53 loss. Yet Hartman did find respite from endlessly doodling plays to rasp a reply to Stewart: "Norm's so damn insecure and cynical that anything in life he can't figure out, he has to bad-mouth."
The pleasantries concluded, on Saturday Missouri needed most of the first half to figure out the Kansas State zone, namely the subtle adjustments Hartman had contrived to clog the passing lanes to the slithery Frazier, who would get only six points. The Tigers are most impressive, however, when Stewart unleashes his hungry bench. In this era of Title IX and watered-down rosters, Mizzou may be the last of the nine-man gangs. That is, nine men who can really play. And 6'4" junior Guard Michael Walker, a physique-alike for that other Walker, the football guy from Georgia, may be the finest eighth man in college history.
Walker positively destroyed Louisville a few weeks ago, and he wreaked the same havoc on Kansas State. The Wildcats were leading 20-13 with 7:39 to go in the first half, but their relentless pounding of Missouri had put their front line in foul jeopardy, and when Walker entered they were forced to cope with one of the few Tigers as rough as they are. Another is Steve Stipanovich, the Missouri Rifle himself, who through concentration and diligence has improved, oh, maybe 400% over the confused, harassed Stipo of last winter. Soon Stipanovich and Walker had Missouri back in the flow, and the Tigers took the lead 25-24.