The 1993-94 Mizzou Hoops season was a special one. Special because the team was undefeated in the Big 8, which hadn’t happened in 23 years. Special because of the wins vs. Illinois and kU (x2). Special because they were a 1-seed, albeit in the West instead of Midwest (Cuonzo Martin’s Purdue team was bestowed that honor). Special because they had EIGHT seniors, 6 of whom had been there all four years— something that is unheard of nowadays. Special because they got to the Elite 8. Special because of the players involved: Lamont Frazier, Jevon Crudup, Kelly Thames, Derek Grimm, Paul O’Liney, Melvin Booker and a whole cast of other characters needed to make this happen. Special because, as Norm Stewart said, this team was a mismatch of talent. They didn’t have a true point guard, a designated 3-man or a designated center, “so they all just kinda took turns.” It was positionless basketball before it became popular some 20 years later.
As I watched the Mizzou Athletics documentary Perfection: The 1993-94 Missouri Tigers, that is the word I kept thinking of. Special. The previous year, as Melvin Booker said in the MIZ-ZOOM event on Thursday evening, was rough, finishing near last place in the Big 8 standings. And the beginning of the 93-94 season didn’t start out great either, getting pummeled by #2 Arkansas in the first game of the year on national tv. OUCH. So, how and when did this team pull it together and become what we now remember as a storybook team?
December 22, 1993. The date everything changed — the game against #19 Illinois for annual bragging rights. It was the second ranked team the Tigers faced, and they wanted to avoid the embarrassment of that other game and forget the nail-biter three days prior against... MEAC (powerhouse ?!)...Coppin State. Both Melvin Booker and Norm Stewart would later say that Illinois was likely the better team, and man, did the Illini have multiple chances to steal the victory.
Every Tiger fan remembers the ending— a victory in triple overtime that would ultimately get the Tigers the confidence they needed to start down a path to a perfect conference season. But what most will forget in this game is how the Tigers had to come storming back from down NINE with only 1:23 left to play in regulation to even get a shot at the win. Thankfully, Melvin Booker broke the press and a Lamont Frazier three tied the game with 10.9 seconds left. By the end of the first OT, almost all of the starters had fouled out, and the team relied on freshmen Jason Sutherland and Derek Grimm, as well as some other role players, to keep it going. By the end of the game, only ONE of the starting five, Lamont Frazier, remained. Watching this back, it still gives me chills, and this game remains to this day one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever witnessed live.
In retrospect, the stats of the Braggin Rights game showed us all what the Tigers were capable of and how they could pull off something special if the cards fell the right way. So, what was it that made this team so good? Booker said it was the bond they had, made stronger by six of them coming in together as freshmen and battling through training, sprinting, games— everything. They also had phenomenal leaders to look up to and learn from when they arrived on campus — guys like Anthony Peeler and Doug Smith, potential NBA Lottery picks — who molded them into the leaders they ended up becoming. Adding in JuCo transfer Paul O’Liney, who had been looking for a new home and chose Columbia, just added more pop to the roster. He ended up making 43 three-pointers in just 23 games, and he didn’t even join the team until the semester break. They had fight; they had fire. They’d been through some stuff and come out on top. As for Coach Stewart, he had this to say about the group:
“They maximized their ability better than maybe any other team. This ball club was better than the sum of its parts. They outdid themselves... Much like a small town, the entire team was needed to make their dreams a reality.”
And work to make their dreams a reality they did. One by one, they knocked off opponent after opponent (they’re crossed off rather satisfyingly with each win in the doc): K State, Colorado, a wild one vs. kansas, crazy comebacks against OK St, Oklahoma, and Iowa State... Booker said it wasn’t until after (Big 8) game 11, 12, or 13 and after the 12th-ranked Tigers (DISRESPECT!) knocked off 4th-ranked kU the second time AT the storied Allen Fieldhouse — a place where you can feel the basketball aura emanating from its hallowed walls — that he started to hear chatter from the guys about going 14-0, thinking, “We can do this.” The week leading up to the regular season finale against Nebraska was a crazy one, he said, with eight (!!) seniors graduating, so many families in town, and the extra excitement and anticipation, any of which could have veered them off course. But, we know how that ended. Mizzou won, and off to the NCAA Tourney they went as a #1 seed in the West. Starting in Utah, they went on to beat Navy (again needing the entire team to get it done— a pattern for them), Wisconsin (in perhaps the best game of Booker’s career), and Syracuse in OT, before faltering against the 2-seed, Arizona, who was “basically playing a home game,” according to Booker, given that it was only 4 hours from LA. The Tigers’ magical season was finally over, but the historical significance of what Missouri accomplished remains.
It is my hope that we haven’t reached a level of complacency at Mizzou where seasons like the 1993-94 one and teams like this one — made up of a combination of versatile stars and great role players — just become a more distant memory every day. I sincerely hope, as I am sure all of you do too, that Cuonzo can get us back to the way it was. Booker has a lot faith in Coach Martin, having known him since the 90s, and that maybe Zo ending up at Mizzou was meant to be (they’d chatted about it when he was the coach at MO State).
Regardless of whether or not you believe it’s fate Cuonzo ended up here, we ALL yearn for a packed Mizzou Arena that is so loud (like Hearnes once was) that opponents hate to play in Columbia. But until then, we have Melvin Booker, his former teammates, Norm, and this documentary to remind us of what could be if it all comes together.