Norm Stewart had been Missouri's head men's basketball coach for nearly 30 seasons. Stewart had led the Tigers to eight conference titles in his Hall of Fame career. This was not one of his finest. He had cycled through waves of memorable teams throughout the early 1980s and 1990s. This team was not so memorable.
It was the first week of February 1997. Missouri was 11-10 overall, 3-6 in Big 12 play. Any hope of a postseason bid was already gone. And now Mizzou's most detested rival, No. 1-ranked Kansas, a team starring Paul Pierce, Jacque Vaughn and Raef LaFrentz, was coming to Columbia, Missouri. A ritual beating was sure to ensue.
It didn't. In one night -- and one 96-94 double-overtime win widely regarded as the greatest in the history of the Border War rivalry -- the vastly outmatched and otherwise unmemorable Tigers sealed their cult-YouTube-clip status forevermore.
Five days later, Missouri hosted the No. 2-ranked team in the country: Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons' best player was some guy named Tim Duncan. Missouri lost, 73-65.
Yes, you read right: In 1997, Missouri played two future NBA Hall of Famers in back-to-back games. This is, in retrospect, totally crazy. Even crazier? A 16-17 team split those two games, beating Pierce and pushing the best power forward in the history of basketball to a hard-fought, single-digit win.
That was the last time any program faced the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country in back-to-back games -- until this week.
On Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, Missouri's 19-year hold on that distinction will officially end. Five days after No. 11 West Virginia knocked off No. 1 Kansas, 74-63, in Morgantown, West Virginia, the Mountaineers will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, to face the No. 2-ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
As rare as West Virginia's schedule is, a win would be even rarer. According to ESPN Stats & Information research (and the curiosity of our colleague Dana O'Neil), the last time any team took down The Associated Press poll's No. 1 and No. 2 teams in consecutive regular-season games was 1989, when Kansas beat No. 2 LSU and No. 1 UNLV. Taking it a step further, the 1990 Oklahoma Sooners were the most recent team to beat two top-ranked opponents in back-to-back games, when they toppled No. 1 Missouri on a Sunday and new No. 1 Kansas the following Tuesday night.
It has been a quarter of a century since any team did what Bob Huggins' team is attempting to do Saturday. As unlikely as it seems, it would be a huge mistake to count out the Mountaineers.
Tuesday's win over Kansas not only proved the difficulty of winning on the road, it also cemented the defensive improvement the Mountaineers have made in Year 2 of the "Press Virginia" project. Last season's mildly desperate stylistic shift -- born of Huggins' willingness to scrap most of his recent tactical repertoire to break a three-year run of mediocrity -- worked, but it had plenty of holes. The Mountaineers forced more turnovers than any team in the country. But their questionable shot defense, huge foul numbers, and so-so defensive rebounding made getting the ball across half court the only real battle opposing offenses faced. It was turnover or bust.
This year's team is still forcing the nation's highest turnover rate. Only this time, West Virginia opponents aren't shooting nearly as well, and aren't grabbing nearly as many second chances from offensive rebounds. Kansas turned the ball over 22 times Tuesday night, sure, but it also made only 10 (of 28) 2-point field goals in 40 minutes, and grabbed only seven offensive rebounds.
The Mountaineers' offense has followed a similar but better trend. Devin Williams is having the best season of an already impressive career, averaging 14.7 points and 8.8 rebounds, drawing nearly eight fouls per 40 minutes. Williams also grabs a ton of offensive rebounds, and would probably grab more, if he weren't playing alongside Jonathan Holton, who tears down 20.4 percent of his team's missed shots. (Only SMU's Jordan Tolbert, at 20.9 percent, is better.)
Before Tuesday, West Virginia's soft schedule cast some doubt on its 14-1 start. After Tuesday, when it ground one of the nation's best offenses into dust, the Mountaineers should be regarded as a co-Big 12 title threat. They might be the nation's best defensive team, full stop.
Saturday's trip is another opportunity to offer proof and is a far bigger challenge than hosting Kansas. The Sooners are led by shooting guard Buddy Hield, the Wooden Watch favorite to this point. Hield scored 20 points in the first 20 minutes at Oklahoma State on Wednesday; his previous week (against Kansas and Kansas State) saw him average 38.5 points, eight rebounds and six assists on 24-of-37 from the field, 14-of-23 from 3, and 15-of-17 from the free throw line. He basically has been out of his mind.
Hield's 51.8 percent mark from 3 this season is a big reason why the Sooners are the nation's best 3-point shooting team, at 46.1 percent. It also helps that guards Isaiah Cousins (41.9) and Jordan Woodard (55.1), and forward Ryan Spangler (42.5) are long-range threats as well. Oklahoma can space the floor and allow Hield to gradually work through his unstoppable outside-in scoring game. No one -- even Kansas in its own building -- has been able to untie that knot.
On Saturday, Huggins will throw his menagerie of guards at Hield and the Sooners. As always, he will press like crazy. He will hope that turnovers rob OU of chances to score in the first place. It just might work.
If it does, West Virginia will have done something unseen in more than 26 years, something that happens so rarely the last team with even a chance to do so was in the middle of Bill Clinton's presidency. It's a remarkable challenge. It's also a testament to how good WVU has been that it will enter the second leg of that challenge -- against the nation's best and most efficient scorer -- with a reasonable expectation of pulling it off.
Even better? Tim Duncan isn't involved.
Ongoing inter-sport redemption story of the season! (OK, maybe not)
On Wednesday night, Clemson beat No. 9 Duke. The upset win pushed the Tigers to 4-1 in the ACC. It was their second straight home win over a ranked team (after Sunday's victory over then-No. 16 Louisville). And, last but not least, it was the first time in history that a school lost the national championship game in football and beat a top-10 team in men's basketball in the same week. On Saturday, No. 8 Miami comes to town. Which raises a few questions: Will the Hurricanes be the latest to fall in Greenville, South Carolina? Is Clemson really getting better? Did this plum three-game homestand simply align with the Tigers' hottest stretch of the season? And if this keeps up, will Clemson fans forget all about the whole onside-kick-precipitating-a-national-title-loss-to-Alabama thing? Just kidding. That will haunt Tigers fans forever.
Scariest road game
All road venues are hostile and uninviting situations; that's what makes them road games. Iowa State's trip to the Little Apple contains an added dash of malice. For starters, the Cylcones are already coming off back-to-back losses in Big 12 play, one at home (94-89, to Baylor) and one on the road (94-91 in overtime at Texas). Steve Prohm's team played valiantly in its Big 12 opener at Oklahoma on Jan. 2, a game it led deep into the second half. On Monday, Oklahoma makes its return trip to Hilton Coliseum. Which is to say: If Iowa State loses at K-State on Saturday, it would be 0-3 in its past three games and 1-4 in conference play in advance of a visit from Hield and the Sooners. See? It's a terrifying scenario. Considering how tight Bruce Weber's team is playing on the defensive end this season, it's not a far-fetched one, either.
Biggest road opportunity
The Wolverines' Tuesday night win over No. 3 Maryland showcased just how good they can be when they're making 3s. Twelve of their 29 long-range shots fell against the Terps, led by Duncan Robinson's 5-of-9 mark. Nonconference losses soured most on Michigan early in the season. It didn't help that those losses -- 86-70 to Xavier at home, 74-60 to UConn in the Bahamas, 82-58 at SMU -- were lopsided. But when John Beilein's team is knocking down shots, it looks far more like the preseason top 25 many predicted. The Wolverines travel to Iowa on Sunday.
Most crucial season tipping-point
On Nov. 17, Georgetown played Maryland to a narrow loss in an insanely loud Xfinity Center environment. Five days later, it fell to Duke 86-84 in Madison Square Garden. The promise was evident, and the Hoyas' season-opening fluke loss to Radford was revealed to be just that: a fluke. Since then, Georgetown has lost to Monmouth and UNC Asheville in its own building. It has fallen completely off the Big East radar. Georgetown should be better, which is why it desperately needs Saturday's game. If confidence is an issue, a video review of the last time Nova came to D.C. (last January's 78-58 Georgetown win) could help.
Best/latest chance to invigorate an entertaining personal rivalry
Before John Calipari lorded over the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and before Bruce Pearl was trying to drag Auburn up from the basketball wilderness by sheer force of personality, the two coaches were the key figures in rebuilding a Memphis-Tennessee rivalry that had taken a four-year hiatus before Pearl's 2006 arrival in Knoxville. From 2006 to 2009, as both coaches had led their programs to new heights, their in-state clashes were some of the best and most heated in the history of the rivalry. (To wit: The 2008 Derrick Rose-led Tigers suffered one loss before the national title game. Guess who?) Calipari's jabs at Pearl, and Pearl's jabs back, only added to the fun.
Things have cooled off since. The 2014-15 season, Pearl's first after his post-Tennessee show-cause, just so happened to coincide with Calipari's unstoppable 10-deep Wildcats, and Pearl didn't even pretend like his rebuilding team had a chance to win. Calipari's team is far less frightening this season. Perhaps a shocking upset Saturday -- an upset even Pearl wouldn't expect, judging by his team's early SEC work -- is the EKG this feud needs to kick-start to life once more.