Willie Smith (1974-76, 6'2, 166)
It is time to induct our first five members into The Rafters, a RMN Basketball Hall of Fame, so to speak. Members were chosen from five different eras: the RMN era (2007-present), the early 2000s (2000-06), the 1990s, the 1980s, and the 1970s and earlier. Our first inductee comes from the mid-1970s. In defeat, just minutes from Mizzou's first Final Four, Willie Smith was heroic.
1975-76: 25.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG (Mizzou: 25-6, Big 8 Champs)
Michael Atchison: Willie Smith enjoyed the most spectacular two-year career in Missouri history. A junior college transfer, Mr. Magic was All-Big Eight as a junior. Then, as a senior, Smith produced the finest individual season ever by a Tiger, and won conference player of the year and All-America honors. Recruited for his defense, in 1974-75 Smith became the first Tiger to score 600 points in a season. The next year, he became the first to score 700, while also establishing a new Missouri single-season record for assists. A left-handed shooting guard, he had range well beyond 20 feet in an age before the three-point shot. In his electrifying senior campaign, Smith led Mizzou to its first conference title in 36 years and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in the modern era. He saved his best performance for last, raining 43 points on Michigan in the Tigers’ heartbreaking loss in the Elite Eight, an effort Tiger fans still speak of reverently. His 25.3 point per game average in 1975-76 is still a Missouri record, and his career average of 23.9 is a full four points ahead of his nearest competitor. The most explosive player ever to wear the uniform.
Despite their confidence, the Tigers came out flat in the regional final against Michigan. Willie Smith scored just two points in the first ten minutes, and Missouri trailed by eighteen. Then Smith began to warm up, and Mizzou cut Michigan’s lead to thirteen at the break. Years later, Smith confessed, "We didn’t think they could beat us at all . . . but their intensity level was higher." The intensity deficit vanished in the second half. The Tigers turned it up by turning to their All-American, who responded with the greatest twenty minutes ever played by a Missouri Tiger.
Smith shredded the Wolverine defense. He shot the ball arrow-straight and feather-soft. He hit turnarounds, floaters, and shots off the dribble. Each time down, his range expanded. He hit from twenty feet, then twenty-four as Michigan’s lead vanished in a rainstorm of jump shots. With under eight minutes to play, Smith sank an unconscionably long jumper and got mugged by Michigan’s Rickey Green. When Smith sank the free throw, Missouri led 76–71. The Final Four was within reach.
But then the wheels came off. The Tigers held the lead when Kim Anderson hurtled down the court on a fast break. He soared toward the rim and got undercut by a defender. In an instinctive effort to keep from falling, Anderson’s layup turned into a dunk as he grabbed the rim for protection. But dunking had been outlawed in NCAA basketball. The officials waved off the hoop and called a technical foul, giving Michigan free throws and the ball, and instantly changing the game. While Michigan capitalized on the controversial call, the Tigers, a 71 percent free throw shooting team, crumbled at the stripe in the final minutes and lost three starters when Anderson, Kennedy, and Currie fouled out. After thundering into the lead, the Tigers faded into history 95–88.
Still, all anyone could talk about was Willie Smith. His twenty-nine second-half points gave him forty-three for the game, the top performance in the entire tournament. More than two hundred media members cast ballots for the regional’s most outstanding player award, and all but one voted for Smith.
Observers were mesmerized. "I can’t think of any words to describe what he does," Kim Anderson confessed, while Michigan coach Johnny Orr called Smith’s effort "one of the greatest shooting exhibitions that I have ever seen." "If there is a better [player]," said Norm Stewart, "I haven’t seen him." But Smith, the ultimate competitor, took no solace in the recognition. "I cried," he says. "We should have won."