Missouri doesn't have a superstar, doesn't beat teams with a fast break or an unnerving full-court press, and isn't disciplined enough always to wait for the good shot.

How, then, could Missouri be ranked No. 1 in this week's wire service polls and have the best record in major college basketball (16-0)?

"There are a lot of teams with a lot more talent than we have," said Coach Norm Stewart, before his team routed Oklahoma, 84-64, Saturday. "We do it with a little talent and a lot of togetherness. I see us as simply a very good team with a lot of potential. All we try to do is go out and win the next game.

"We've never had a No. 1 ranking in anything before, so it would be great for the school and for the state. It's a form of recognition and everybody likes a little recognition.

"We have a pretty mature group, so being No. 1 shouldn't have a bad effect on us. We have good players who know they're being questioned as to how good they are and how good our conference (Big Eight) is. They want to show they deserve everything they get. We're working to go undefeated, but we don't expect to."

The Tigers' best-known player is 6-foot-11 junior center Steve Stipanovich, who drew more attention last summer for accidentally shooting himself and then fabricating a story that an intruder did it than he did for his on-the-court accomplishments the previous season.

Stipanovich isn't a dominating Ralph Sampson or Patrick Ewing type, but he is a good, solid center, averaging 12 points, eight rebounds and one blocked shot a game.

His supporting cast includes three junior college transfers: Ricky Frazier, the leading scorer at 16 points a game; point guard Prince Bridges, and Marvin (Moon) McCrary, a strong defensive player. The other starter is Jon Sundvold, the team's best outside shooter.

Stewart, a player at Missouri in the mid-1950s, has been coaching the Tigers since 1967 and has a 265-142 record. He was 97-42 in six seasons at Northern Iowa before returning to his alma mater.

Stewart believes in man-to-man defense, but his offensive philosophy changes with the talent.

"When I had a shooter like Willie Smith (in the late 1970s), I just told him to shoot until I said no," Stewart said. "And then I would go home to my wife every night and beg her to please, never let me say no to Willie. We don't have anybody like that with this group, so the scoring is more balanced.

"I like thrilling basketball and we'll run and gun if we can. I think long baseball passes are great, but not if you hit the lady with the funny hat in the third row. We aren't afraid to try anything, though."

The Tigers are the nation's second-best free throw shooting team and the starters are exceptional passers. In those two facets of the game rests much of their success. They made 36 of 41 free throws in a victory over Illinois.

The Tigers also are adaptable. They ran with Alabama-Birmingham, winning, 98-80, and beat Nebraska's slowdown, 44-42, in overtime.

The Big Eight is not a strong basketball conference, but Kansas and Kansas State always seem have good teams and Missouri plays a tough out-of-conference schedule. The Tigers have beaten Notre Dame, Kansas and Louisville, in addition to Alabama-Birmingham.

They will be coming East Feb. 20 to play Georgetown.

"I hate playing in small gyms and against big coaches," said Stewart, alluding to McDonough Arena and Hoya Coach John Thompson, "so that's going to be a tough game for us. That game will be right before the Kansas State game and two games before our conference tournament. When and where you play is almost as important as who you play."

The Tigers didn't sneak up on anybody this season. They were 25-6 two years ago and reached the Midwest regional semifinals, losing to LSU. Last season they were college basketball's version of the New York Yankees, fighting and feuding among themselves, yet finishing 22-10 and reaching the playoffs. They lost to Lamar in the first round.

"Last year our club got as much out of itself as it could, but it wasn't an enjoyable year," said Stewart. "The kids didn't have much fun. They didn't look forward to seeing me and I wasn't too thrilled about seeing them. We just didn't handle things the way we could have, should have or should have wanted to.

"This year we have the right chemistry and it's fun to come to practice."


Stewart believes in hard work. He yells in practice and sends players running the stairs at expansive Hearnes Multipurpose Center, the 13,000-seat arena and practice site.

"Conditioning, play hard, play together" is emblazoned on the Tigers' practice shorts.

"You've got to keep them thinking," said Stewart.

Bridges, the team's quickest player and the only starter who wasn't also a starter last season, said Stewart is "tough to play for, but fair."

"You have to have fun to play well," he said, "and he makes sure we have fun."

Now the Tigers are laughing--all the way to the top of the polls.