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What If... Norm Stewart had landed Larry Johnson?

Exploring the former JUCO All American who landed at UNLV and helped win a National Championship, but Missouri was heavily recruiting the future NBA All Star. What if...

Larry Johnson

This was originally posted March 30, 2008. Bill ran a series of “What If...” posts during his time running Rock M Nation, and since it’s “What If...” week at, I figured we’d take the chance to re-up some of Bill’s great posts from back in the day. One thing to note, as Bill says below, recruiting in Norm’s time did not have nearly the white hot light on it which it does today. What teams were recruiting who and who were finalists were rarely announced or know. But it’s still a fun exercise. — Sam

This isn't the typical "What If..." that stems from long-running Mizzou fan wishes--this comes completely from an offhand story Norm Stewart was telling while doing color commentary for a Mizzou basketball game last season. I don't even remember the story. The only part I remember is, "That reminds me of when I was recruiting Larry Johnson..." I blacked out after that.

I didn't hear the rest of the story. Holy crap, we were recruiting Grandmama?? Holy crap, what would have happened had we landed him??? I don't know if we actually came close, if we were a finalist, if "recruiting him" consisted of a couple phone calls and some letters, and we were quickly eliminated. No idea. You'd have to ask Norm. But it allowed my imagination to run wild, which is always dangerous...especially when I've got numbers to access.

Here are Larry Johnson's college stats. After two insanely good seasons at Odessa JC, he led the Rebels to two trips to the NCAA finals, was twice a 1st-team All-American, and won the 1991 National Player of the Year award. Put that aside in your mind for now, and let's travel back about 20 years.

1988-90 were almost certainly the most eventful--good and bad--seasons in Mizzou the history of most basketball programs, actually. Let's let Michael Atchison set the table for 1988-89.

there has never been another season like it, none that flirted so closely with triumph and tragedy, none in which such intense pressure collided with such ferocious play. The 1988-89 Tigers played for their own pride, for the integrity of the institution, and for the coach they nearly lost along the way.

That pretty well summarizes a season that saw an 11-game winning streak, an NCAA investigation, the resignation of an assistant coach, some of the most notorious (good and bad) games in Mizzou lore (the Billy Tubbs "Regardless of how terrible the officiating is, do not throw stuff on the floor" game, for one)...

...wins over North Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma (twice) and Maryland, plus a trip to the Sweet sixteen...

...oh yeah, and their coach collapsing on a plane and finding out he had cancer.

The 1988-89 roster was a mixture of experience and prodigiously talented youth. Freshman Anthony Peeler and sophomore Doug Smith intermingled with juniors Lee Coward, Nathan Buntin, and John McIntyre, and seniors Byron Irvin, Mike Sandbothe, Greg Leonard, and Greg Church. The team had depth, size, speed, chemistry, craftiness, and talent. The Tigers finished 29-8 (10-4 in the Big 8, at the peak of the Big 8's talent and influence) and came within an 83-80 loss to Syracuse of making the team's second ever trip to the Elite Eight.

Drama and plenty of senior leadership took that team a long way, but the returning talent (and Norm Stewart's recovery) brought some pretty big expectations for 1989-90. Those expectations multiplied exponentially after the Tigers plowed through highly-ranked Louisville and North Carolina in the Maui Invitational. NCAA investigations were swirling, but the team on the court was insanely good. A starting lineup of Coward, Peeler, McIntyre, Buntin, and Smith (with guys like Travis Ford, Jamal Coleman, Jeff Warren and Chris Heller coming off the bench) thrashed most of the non-conference slate, with only a loss to Illinois separating the Tigers from an undefeated record as the conference season started.

Easy home wins, combined with tight road wins, led Mizzou to a 12-2 Big 8 record (26-4 overall) and a conference title, but that really doesn't tell the whole story. Mizzou was damn near unstoppable when its starting lineup was healthy. They knocked Kansas from the #1 ranking not once, but twice. First, they beat the Jayhawks at Hearnes to move to 17-1 and #1 in the polls for the first time in almost a decade. A loss in Manhattan knocked them down a peg, but their 77-71 win in Allen Field House in the first ever #1 vs #2 battle in the KU-MU rivalry...

...gave the top spot back to the Tigers. And then the wheels fell off. Lee Coward broke his hand, the Tiger offense struggled with Anthony Peeler out of position at the point, and Mizzou lost two of three (including a 31-point loss in South Bend) to end the regular season...and then lost to last-place Colorado in Round One of the Big 8 Tournament...and then lost to 14-seed Northern Iowa in Round One of the NCAAs.

And then Travis Ford transferred. And Mizzou got put on probation. Ouch. Possibly the swiftest, most dramatic momentary fall from grace in Mizzou history.

But what if, sometime during the drama of 1988-89, Larry Johnson had signed on to play for the Tigers from 1989-91?


As good as the real 1989-90 Tigers were in four of five positions, there was something of a weakness at the SF/third guard position. Senior John McIntyre and sophomore Jamal Coleman were strong role players--McIntyre averaged 10.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, and 3.3 APG in 27.7 minutes, while Coleman came off the bench to contribute 3.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG, and 0.7 APG in 11.8 minutes. Norm Stewart wasn't averse to straying from a conventional PG-SG-SF-PF-C lineup to get his best players on the court, and with the experienced Buntin and Smith holding down the post, I'm thinking most of Larry Johnson's minutes would have come from the McIntyre/Coleman pool instead of the Smith/Buntin pool. So with a new distribution of minutes, here are your starting five:

  • Lee Coward: 29.4 MPG, 10.8 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.4 APG
  • Anthony Peeler: 33.3 MPG, 16.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 5.8 APG
  • Larry Johnson: 29.5 MPG, 18.7 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 2.0 APG
  • Nathan Buntin: 27.6 MPG, 12.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.2 APG
  • Doug Smith: 29.4 MPG, 19.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.0 APG

And off the bench...

  • Travis Ford: 23.2 MPG, 6.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 3.5 APG
  • John McIntyre: 14.8 MPG, 5.4 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 1.7 APG
  • Jamal Coleman: 8.4 MPG, 2.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.5 APG
  • Jeff Warren: 6.0 MPG, 1.2 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.3 APG

Now...that seems like a lot of points in that starting lineup (three guys averaging 16+ PPG?), but this is the late-'80s. Oklahoma, Mizzou, and everybody else in the conference was playing at a lightning pace. The real '89-'90 Tigers averaged about 78 possessions per game and an extremely efficient 1.12 points per possession. Adding Johnson's offensive rebounding prowess to the mix, possessions got extended even further, and in roughly the same number of possessions per game, Mizzou averages 1.17 PPP.

I just referred to what would have been the biggest strength of this team--rebounding. With a front line of Johnson, Buntin, and Smith, this is certainly the best rebounding team in Mizzou history...hell, this is one of the best rebounding teams ever. If you miss a shot against that front line, that's all you're getting. And since teams never shot more than about 44% against a Norm Stewart defense...well...

So taking into account how much of an upgrade LJ would be over McIntyre/Coleman, both in rebounding and pure offensive ability, how much of an improvement would his addition make to a team that managed to reach #1 without him? Well, they shoot better (LJ shot a ridiculous 62% that year), they obviously rebound better, they foul a bit less (leading to fewer opponent FT's), they give up about 3-5 fewer offensive rebounds per game, they block about 30 more shots, they make about 15 more steals, they do turn the ball over a bit more, but...they end up averaging 1.17 PPP, while limiting teams mostly to one shot and 0.90 PPP. Projecting that over the course of a whole game, they end up averaging about 7.4 more PPG and give up 2.4 fewer PPG. Yikes. So let's check out the 'new' results (differing results in bold).


Mizzou 75, Evansville 50 (Maui Invitational)
Mizzou 90, Louisville 77 (Maui Invitational)
Mizzou 87, North Carolina 70 (Maui Invitational)

As before, Mizzou maneuvers easily to the Maui title, though now the margins of victory are pretty ridiculous. They take a Top 5 ranking into the month of December.


Mizzou 86, UT-Martin 56
Mizzou 93, Creighton 77
Mizzou 113, Hawaii-Loa 45
Mizzou 96, at Old Dominion 73
Mizzou 96, at Arkansas 85
Mizzou 93, Bradley 75
Mizzou 100, Illinois 99
Mizzou 78, at Memphis 62
Mizzou 127, Nebraska-Kearney 86

Mizzou rings in the year with a 12-0 record after nipping Illinois in come-from-behind fashion (something Doug Smith never did in real-life) and winning easily in hard-to-win places like Fayetteville and Memphis.


Mizzou 91, Austin Peay 45
Mizzou 86, Oklahoma State 66
Mizzou 113, Southern 85
Mizzou 118, at Nebraska 92
Mizzou 80, at Oklahoma State 69
Mizzou 102, Kansas 84
Mizzou 97, Rutgers 82
Mizzou 111, at Colorado 87
Mizzou 102, at Iowa State 90

After six conference games (4 on the road), Mizzou remains undefeated, heading into a February 4 matchup with Colorado at 21-0. Only four road games remain on the schedule--Kansas State, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame--and the team is happy, healthy, and dominant. However, they don't get the luxury of knocking Kansas from the #1 ranking because, well, they're #1. And they will be for a while.


Mizzou 101, Colorado 67
Mizzou 65, at Kansas State 62
Mizzou 115, Nebraska 83
Mizzou 85, at Kansas 69 (again, they don't get to knock KU from #1)
Mizzou 99, Oklahoma 87
Mizzou 97, Iowa State 83

At this point, Mizzou stands 27-0, an undefeated season very much within reach. However, Lee Coward breaks his hand in the win over ISU, and the road's about to get a bit rougher.

at Oklahoma 104, Mizzou 97
Mizzou 72, Kansas State 58

The senior class of Coward (out), Buntin, McIntyre, and Brad Sutton goes out in style, as K-State's efforts to slow down the pace are to no avail. Mizzou, who had wrapped up the conference title (and a #1 NCAA tourney seed) a couple games ago, has one more game to go before the conference tourney starts.


at Notre Dame 96, Mizzou 74

Not as disastrous in real-life, but it sends a signal that Mizzou is not on all cylinders as the postseason approaches.

Big 8 Tournament

Round One: #1 seed Mizzou 95, #8 Colorado 89 (OT)

Mizzou is lethargic for about 35 minutes before rallying to kill a double-digit deficit and force OT, where (unlike in real-life) they pull away for the win.

Round Two: #1 Mizzou 88, #5 Oklahoma State 72

Mizzou bounces back from a poor effort and moves on to the finals, where they get a chance to avenge their first loss of the season against Oklahoma. Unfortunately...

Finals: #2 Oklahoma 92, #1 Mizzou 86 doesn't happen. But Mizzou still heads to the Big Dance at 30-3, a sure-fire 1-seed.

NCAA Tournament (Southeast Region)

Round One: #1 Mizzou 77, #16 Murray State 70</strong></p>

In real-life, Murray State took Michigan State to OT before falling. Matched with Mizzou's poor effort against Northern Iowa, this one is destined to be far closer than it should be...but we'll say Grandmama comes up big down the stretch, finishing with 24 and 13, and Mizzou moves on.

Round Two: #1 Mizzou 69, #9 UC-Santa Barbara 64

They say the NCAA tourney is a series of three 4-team tourneys...and Mizzou sure didn't look too good in winning the first tourney.

Sweet Sixteen: #1 Mizzou 79, #4 Georgia Tech 75

Mizzou's big threesome of LJ, Buntin, and Smith go up against real-life Final Four participants Georgia Tech and their Lethal Weapon 3 backcourt of Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott, and Brian Oliver. Matchup problems abound for both teams, but ultimately Mizzou's backcourt of Peeler and Coward is less mismatched with GT's than GT's frontcourt of Malcolm Mackey and Johnny McNeil is with MU's. Doug Smith puts up 31 and 17, and Mizzou's in the Elite Eight for the second time.

Elite Eight: #1 Mizzou 97, #6 Minnesota 91

These no-name Gophers came within a basket of beating Georgia Tech for the right to go to the Final Four, and they put up a fight here as well. But this is where Larry Johnson begins to make more and more of an impact. UNLV started quite slowly in the '90 tourney before picking up steam as the rounds progressed, and LJ takes over against the Gophs, making the clinching free throws and sending Mizzou to their first Final Four.

Final Four: Mizzou 115, Loyola Marymout 95

Bo Kimble and Loyola Marymount actually made the biggest lasting impression during the 1990 NCAAs...and they didn't even make the Final Four, getting smoked by UNLV in the Elite Eight. However, this time around, an LJ-less UNLV squad is not the unstoppable force they were, garnering a 3-seed in the Midwest Region and losing in the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan State is now the 1-seed in Loyola's region, and the Hank Gathers-blessed Lions move all the way to the Final Four in Denver. However, Mizzou's good enough to run with Loyola, and they're big enough to grab every rebound. At this point, LJ is unstoppable, and Mizzou's starting to look like a team of destiny.

National Finals: Mizzou 93, Duke 73

Sure, this is homerism, but...which of these results can you disagree with? This tourney opened up wide for a growing-hotter-by-the-game UNLV team...coulda happened for Mizzou too, right? Or not. wouldn't really have surprised anybody if Mizzou became the first #1 seed to lose in Round One. Georgia Tech would have represented a rough challenge in the Sweet Sixteen. But a team with Anthony Peeler, Larry Johnson, and Doug Smith in the starting lineup would have to be one of the most likely teams to win the title, and LJ would have been a pretty strong remedy for the struggles that beset Mizzou late in the real 1989-90.

1990-91 and beyond...

I believe it was October 1990 when Mizzou found out it would be banned from the postseason for that season. Chances are, Doug Smith and LJ would have both come back for their senior seasons, and simply making the same statistical adjustments for that season, Mizzou goes 25-5 and wins the Big 8 Tournament title, and quite possibly two jerseys are retired on senior night--both Doug Smith's and Larry Johnson's. But opening the LJ can of worms brings a lot of interesting questions.

  • Does the successful recruitment of Larry Johnson add to the suspicion and wrongdoing...and therefore add to the penalty from the NCAA? Does that extra penalty eventually impact the 1993-94 team in some way? (Probably not.)
  • Does Travis Ford transfer if Mizzou wins the national title? (Maybe?)
  • If Larry Johnson, who in this experiment got Chris Heller's scholarship, comes to Mizzou, does Mizzou win the 1993 Big 8 Tournament without MVP Chris Heller? And if so, does that stunt the momentum that developed for that special '93-'94 season? (Okay, forget that one...'93-'94 started with no momentum whatsoever.)
  • Probably most important--is there a 'national title' spike in recruiting? I say there probably would have been, at least in 1991. Obviously the class of 1990 (Melvin Booker, Jevon Crudup, Reggie Smith, Lamont Frazier) had already been signed, but there would have been two schollies available for the class of 1991 (in real life, there was one, and it went to Steve Horton, but now Chris Heller's not on the team, so there are two). Unfortunately did not exist in the early-'90s. And the Trib archive doesn't go back that far, so I have absolutely no way of figuring out who we were recruiting or could have landed (at least not until Norm does a lot more color commentary). Would somebody like Donny Marshall--a 1991 recruit from the state of Michigan who left the state for UConn--have considered Mizzou? What about Loren Meyer, an Iowa kid who stayed close to home and played ball in Ames? Or probably most realistically, what about StL's Cuonzo Martin, who ended up at Purdue? With a national title and somebody like Martin succeeding at Mizzou, does that lead to more in-state recruiting success? I'm hesitant to go down this road because of the domino effect it opens up, and I want to go ahead and post this, so what I'll do is post now and update with extra seasons when I get the chance. However, for this and future what if's, I've been trying to put together a list of in-state recruits we missed out on in the '90s, so...yeah, if anybody wants to help me out and post some State of MO kids, go right ahead...


Alright, I couldn't justify adding anybody like Donny Marshall, so I just gave Chris Heller's scholarship to Cuonzo Martin and decided Travis Ford wouldn't have transferred. So with that in mind, here's the '91-'92 lineup.


  • Travis Ford (Jr): 25.3 MPG, 10.6 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 3.8 APG
  • Melvin Booker (So): 22.7 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.7 APG
  • Anthony Peeler (Sr): 35.4 MPG, 23.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.9 APG
  • Jeff Warren (Jr): 29.3 MPG, 10.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.6 APG
  • Jevon Crudup (So): 33.4 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.8 APG


  • Jamal Coleman (Sr): 21.2 MPG, 8.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.0 APG
  • Lamont Frazier (So): 16.7 MPG, 4.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.9 APG
  • Cuonzo Martin (Fr): 13.0 MPG, 3.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.9 APG
  • Steve Horton (Fr): 6.3 MPG, 1.3 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.2 APG

Without Chris Heller, this isn't as good a rebounding team--guys like Frazier and Coleman have to spend a little time at the PF position. But the swingman depth is impressive, with Martin only able to garner about 13 minutes per game. Also, with basically two point guards on the floor (Ford & Booker), this is a very impressive offensive team. So with the addition of Ford and Martin, and the subtraction of Heller, this team scores about 5.4 more PPG, while giving up about 1.0 more PPG, a net gain of 4.4 points.


No results change from the non-conference season, as the only non-con game Mizzou lost that year was at Memphis by double digits. Mizzou garners impressive wins at Arkansas, Oregon, and Notre Dame while taking out UNLV at home and winning Braggin' Rights again. In all, they go 13-1 in their non-conference slate.


1991-92 is a strange season in the Big 8, as parity rules. Everybody ends up between 10-4 and 4-10. Mizzou's improved offense leads them to two extra conference wins against Kansas (at home) and Kansas State (in Manhattan).

So the conference season starts on 1/13 as Mizzou bounces back after its first loss (to Memphis on 1/8) with an 85-79 win over KU at Hearnes. They also take out Nebraska (in Lincoln) and Colorado before falling badly at Gallagher-Iba, 85-67. Four wins follow, and Mizzou's 7-1 in conference before a bad loss in Boulder (78-66 to the last-place Buffs). Mizzou recovers, beating OSU in a rematch, then winning in Ames and Manhattan, moving to 10-2 (22-3 overall) and clinching a share of the conference title. However, the regular season ends with losses to OU (at home) and KU (in Lawrence). KU and MU end up tied for the conference title at 10-4. Mizzou stands at 22-5 entering the Big 8 Tourney.


Mizzou enters KC as the 2-seed and pulls away from 7-seed Kansas State (81-69), but falls short against Oklahoma State in the semis (69-59). This is better than their real-life performance (when they bowed out in the quarters to ISU).


In real-life, Mizzou was the 5-seed in the Midwest Region. The three extra wins bump them to a 3-seed in the same region. They face #14 Fordham in round one and coast to an overwhelming 90-67 win. Next up is #6 Syracuse. The size and zone D of the Orangemen give Mizzou matchup problems, and the Tigers comes up short, losing 80-77. The season ends at 24-7 (real-life: 21-9). Mizzou loses Peeler and Coleman, but returns a boatload of experience in seniors-to-be Ford and Warren, plus juniors-to-be Crudup, Booker, and Frazier.