As a numbers game, basketball traditionally favors the team with more points, more rebounds and more precise passes. Of course, having more superstars on the court at once doesn’t hurt, either.
Since 1972, Hearnes Center has set the perfect stage for the best players in Missouri history, but it was clearly a better showcase for double-act talent.
If the Tigers’ latest tandem of seniors Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson, Motor City muscle mates, needed lessons on fine-tuned collaboration, they had plenty of predecessors.
The most notable Tiger twosome owned the league for their Tiger tenures.
Former point guard Jon Sundvold and forward Steve Stipanovich earned four straight Big Eight Conference Championships from 1980-83.
“When Jon and Steve came, they did something that was really phenomenal,” said Gary Link, a Tiger broadcaster who also played at MU. “They were definitely the best one-two punch over a four-year period in the history of Missouri. There’s none any better.”
Together, Sundvold and Stipanovich were back-to-back selections for All-Big Eight team. They established Missouri as a national powerhouse in 1983 as All-Americans.
Fourth on the school’s career scoring list, Stipanovich had 1,836 points. Until Johnson blew past his record, Stipanovich held the record of 149 swats for 20 years.
His 7-foot physical presence at center changed the way conference competition recruited big men.
Oklahoma recruited Wayman Tisdale, Nebraska nabbed Dave Hoppen and Kansas enlisted Greg Dreiling to counter Stipanovich.
Sundvold, 10th on the Tigers’ scoring list with 1,597 points, set school and conference records for minutes played in a season, 1,303 in 1983, and career (4,289).
Stipanovich said much of the pair’s success depended on Sundvold’s shooting skill and ballhandling flair.
“People tend to forget how good Jon Sundvold was,” he said. “He was so sharp.”
Link, who played for the Tigers from 1972-74, has seen his share of games since Hearnes opened, both as a player and as broadcaster for the Tiger Sports network.
Although future players may outdo Stipanovich’s and Sundvold’s statistical superlatives, Link said he doubts any pair could better their four straight league titles.
“That’s a record that can never be broken, and it’s a record that would be very difficult to be tied,” Link said.
Although the Tigers made NCAA Tournament appearances all of their four years, Stipanovich and Sundvold could not carry their team farther than the Elite Eight in 1980.
“That group probably surprised me the most of any because I would have thought in their four year span, in one year they would have fallen in the right place and made it to a Final Four,” Link said. “You not only have to be a good basketball team, but you also have to have a little luck to get to the final four. At the end of the year, you can get some bad luck.”
Not long after Stipanovich and Sundvold graduated, forward Derrick Chievous and point guard Lynn Hardy coupled for a conference title in 1987.
Every now and then, though, a Tiger’s tale is so storied that it stands alone on a team of champions. Chievous, Missouri’s leading scorer with 2,580 points, separated himself from the rest of school history with four seasons of double-digit scoring averages. He is also fourth in rebounding (979).
In 1986-87, Chievous set the school mark for points in a season (821). He scored 27 in the conference tournament title game, a 67-65 win against Kansas.
When Chievous’ time ended with the Tigers, he set high standards for his successors.
In 1990, another powerful pair, Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler, led Missouri to a league crown. They also claimed conference tournament titles in 1990 and 1991.
En route to that 1990 Big Eight championship, Peeler and Smith led the Tigers in a 94-87 shock of then No. 1 Kansas. The Jayhawks entered Hearnes at 19-0, but the No. 4 Tigers earned bragging rights on Missouri coach Norm Stewart's 55th birthday. Peeler led the team with 24 points and Smith added 23.
“We realized they were ranked No. 1,” Peeler said after the upset. “But coach Norm Stewart stressed that this is the Big Eight, and you just can’t afford to lose a game at home. I can go home now without my family and friends getting on my case.”
With his repertoire of frontcourt dominance, Smith became the third Big Eight player to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds. He grabbed 1,053 rebounds, a record Johnson broke Wednesday night against Texas Tech.
“Not many people get that honor,” Smith said.
Peeler’s play earned him the third-place spot, a step behind Smith, in school scoring history.
On rare occasions, a Missouri marvel defied the logic and rewrote the Tigers’ equation for success.
Willie Smith spent two seasons at Missouri, but he started every game.
After transferring to Missouri from Seminole (Okla.) Junior College in 1975, he rarely missed an opportunity to score.
Smith led the Tigers to their first Big Eight championship under Stewart in 1976 and nearly launched the Tigers to their first Final Four appearance. Despite Smith’s 43 points, 29 in the second half, the Tigers fell to Michigan 95-88 in the NCAA Midwest Regional final.
Smith’s high-scoring finale was a glimpse of his scoring power. He owns the school scoring average record (23.9).
He earned All-Big Eight honors both seasons and All-American status in 1976 after leading the Tigers to a league title and the Elite Eight.
Despite his success, Smith’s memories of friends and fans tie his loyalty to Missouri.
“There'll always be a kinship to Hearnes, but what makes Missouri basketball is the fans,” he said. “The people I met here, they became friends for a lifetime. That’s what college athletics is all about.”
From John Brown, Stewart’s first All-American in 1973, to Paulding and Johnson, Hearnes has seen its share of star athletes, but when the doors close today after 32 years of thrilling basketball traditions and highlights, narrowing the honored players to five isn’t an easy task.
Former Tiger Kim Anderson, who played and coached for Stewart, said Stewart’s strategy for consistent success hinged on developing solid teams, not individual stars.
“There’s been so many great guys over the years,” Anderson said. “You’ve got your leading scorers, your leading rebounders. Then you’ve got the other guys that contributed a lot to the fiber of Missouri basketball that might not even be in the record book anywhere. It would be too hard. I couldn’t begin to do it.”