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Mizzou's Greatest, #29: 1922 Missouri hoops

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The Savitar

The players have long since passed away. Rothwell Gymnasium is now a swimming pool. More than 90 years ago, the best team in the country played its home games in Columbia.

The early-1920s were a miniature golden age for Mizzou. From 1918-21, the Tigers had gone 65-6; they were the two-time defending conference champions heading into 1922, but coached by second-year head man Craig Ruby, they were tasked with replacing three stars, Pidge Browning, Leslie Wacker, and Greatest No. 68 George Williams. And with more stars leading the way -- guard-center Herb Bunker, forward Bun Browning (Pidge's brother), guard George Bond, and all-sports star Johnny Knight -- they not only held steady, but improved. And some role player named Don Faurot held his own as well.

Leslie E. Edmonds, a Missouri Valley official and writer, contributed a "Review of the Basket Ball Season" for the 1922 Savitar, and it is a truly wonderful read.

Now this story is principally for Missouri consumption and generalization will be of less value in the years when Missourians of fifty turn back to the Savitar of today. So a word of Missouri's team will not be amiss. The Tiger won from all the Valley except its one game from Kansas. The team that made such a wonder record is worthy of every word that is written of it.

Four of the team--Browning, Bunker, Bond and Knight--were placed on the all-Missouri Valley teams. Hays was included in a select list for honorable mention.

Browning--alert, versatile, clean, efficient; Bunker--massive, quick, tireless, gentlemanly; Bond--snappy, aggressive, powerful, enduring; Knight--clear-visioned, accurate, agile, persistent; Hays--fighting, obedient, dashing, consistent, and Faurot and Van Nice, two utility players who should some day serve with even greater profit in fame to Missouri and themselves; that is the team.

Who has watched Missouri in play, functioning precisely, cleanly and inspiringly under the direction of Craig Ruby, master coach, and has not marveled? There goes little Browning, working, edging, fighting toward the basket shooting with effect, setting himself perceptively as he aims. Watch Knight taking the ball from his basket, playing the rebound skillfully as only one who has mastered the backstop's angles can play. See the ponderous Bunker covering the back court with easy grace and guiding his huge strength ever toward the ball and never toward the man. There, too, is Bond, a captain who leads, bounding over the floor, changing from offensive to defensive and back again and showing equal ability at either. Hays has been told to stick his man and a right good job he's doing of it too. "Time out" and Faurot replaces a Missouri player to show the fighting qualities that make him acceptable to this team. Or perhaps it is Van Nice sent in to aid because someone has faltered temporarily.

The team was good from the start, then just got better and better.

Mizzou 37, Drake 25

Missouri 45, Wash U. 26

Missouri 46, Nebraska 31

Missouri 47, Grinnell 19

Missouri 39, "Kansas Aggies" 24

Missouri 46, Oklahoma 27

Missouri 55, Nebraska 16

Missouri 66, Oklahoma 22

While Missouri was playing its best ball ever, Kansas was playing damn well, too. The Tigers went to Lawrence on January 24 and stole a 35-25 win, all but locking up a third straight conference title. But Kansas returned the favor with a 26-16 win in Columbia. The teams split the conference title, but that was only the beginning of the tale. Here's a lengthy excerpt from Michael Atchison's True Sons:

The season over, Missouri and Kansas had tied for the Missouri Valley title, each with a 15-1 conference record. Not satisfied to share, Missouri’s committee on intercollegiate athletics challenged Kansas to a one game playoff at a neutral site, Kansas City’s Convention Hall. Phog Allen preferred a three game series to be played in Columbia, Lawrence and Kansas City, though he expressed concern that playing off campus might smack of commercialism. He left the decision to KU’s athletic board and chancellor.

Kansas declined the challenge. Though its team already had played 18 games, the university objected to playing just one more, and used academic integrity as its excuse. Chancellor E. H. Lindley explained the decision. "We have kept in mind the fundamental that the university does not exist for athletics," he said. "Athletics are to be fostered as an important contribution to a broad education only when kept within reasonable bounds." The chancellor went on to say "the basket ball season consisting of eighteen games is closed. It has been long and arduous enough. . . . We will play Missouri in basket ball next year."

The explanation was greeted with a measure of skepticism, especially among those who covered and followed sports in Kansas City. Some deemed KU’s explanation an "alibi." Whatever it was, it put an anticlimactic end to a remarkable season.

The lack of a resolution yielded controversy. No true college basketball champion would be crowned until 1938 when the first national tournament was held. In 1936, however, the Helms Foundation, acting on its own authority, retroactively named mythical national champions. For the 1922 season, it picked the Jayhawks, and their win in Columbia has come to be regarded as the national championship game. The obvious question: Why not Missouri? Each went 15-1 in the Valley, each won by ten points on the other’s home floor, each defeated one non-conference opponent to start the season (KU also lost a non-conference game, to the Kansas City Athletic Club, a formidable team of former collegians). Kansas may have gotten the nod based on the reputation of coach Phog Allen, whose stature grew through time; Helms selected him as the game’s greatest coach in 1943. Whatever the reason, Kansas did not prove itself superior to Missouri on the hardwood, where the two clubs were dead even through two games against each other and 14 more against the rest of the Missouri Valley.

Later, some balance was added to history. Years after Helms chose Kansas, historian Patrick Premo researched the game’s early seasons, and concluded that the Tigers were in fact the nation’s best in 1922 (Premo and Helms agreed on the top team all but four times from 1911 to 1929; two of those times, Premo chose Missouri). The teams are as deadlocked in history as they were on the court. Nonetheless, Kansas continues to fly the banner of a mythical championship from the Allen Field House rafters, while Missouri fans have all but forgotten the great teams of the Twenties, as men who knew glory in their day have been rendered anonymous by the passage of time.

Luckily, some record remains of their greatness. Bunker and Browning each were named All-America and first team All-Missouri Valley. George Bond and Johnny Knight made second team All-Valley, with Bob Hays earning honorable mention. Despite the loss of all-time greats George Williams and Pidge Browning (who led the Lowe & Campbell team of Kansas City to the national AAU championship in their first year out of school), Coach Ruby and company produced one of the most successful seasons in Tiger history. Valley official Leslie Edmonds offered these thoughts. "The 1922 basket ball team of Missouri was a credit to the University, to its coach, and to its personnel; yes, a credit to the ideals of sportsmanship that govern the play of gentlemen the world around and a tribute to the excellence of sports development in the Missouri Valley."

Something about Kansas and turning down challenges, huh? Guess there's no point in proposing a battle for the 1922 national championship banner all over again...

Regardless, this Missouri team was truly awesome, setting a high bar for a program that would struggle (and fail) to meet it over the half-century that followed.