Oklahoma basketball: Remembering ‘Billy Ball’ 30 years later

The 2019-20 college basketball season is in the record books (with an asterisk attached), but that doesn’t prevent from looking back and remembering some of the great Oklahoma basketball seasons of the past.

The 1980s was a terrific decade for Sooner men’s basketball, and the final year of that decade was one of the best. During the 1980s, under the orchestration of head coach Billy Tubbs. Oklahoma was the epitome of a run-and-gun basketball team. One writer described Oklahoma basketball under Tubbs as “the equivalent of punk rock: brash and ruthless.”

Between 1982 and 1990, Tubbs took eight Oklahoma teams to the NCAA Tournament, including a national championship runner-up in 1988. Oklahoma won the Big Eight regular-season championship four times in the decade of the 1980s and finished second on three other occasions.

One of those second-place conference finishes was 30 years ago, in the 1989-90 season. The Sooners tied for second place in the Big 12 that season with Kansas, both a game back of conference champion Missouri.

Tubbs’ philosophy was the more shots you took, the more points you would score. The Sooners would, run, run, and then run some more until the opponent literally wilted under the strain. They even coined a term to describe the Oklahoma style of basketball at the time. They called it “Billy Ball.” Tubbs didn’t just want to beat you, he wanted to destroy you.

The 1989-90 Sooners were ranked 16th in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 and were coming off two seasons in which they had posted a combined record of 65-10. It was also the first time in a couple of seasons they would be without the services of All-Americans Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock.

The Sooners’ served notice right out of the gate that season that there would be little drop off from the in-your-face, fast-tempo, high-scoring style of play that had brought top national attention to Oklahoma basketball the previous two seasons.

Oklahoma opened the 1989-90 season with a record-setting 173-101 victory over U.S. International. The Sooners scored 97 points in the first half, and four OU players scored at least 20 points in the game. Oklahoma took 147 shots in the game (twice what you would typically see in a game today), making 70 of them

That was one of 15 times that season Oklahoma hit the century mark in a game. The Sooners won 27 games in 1989-90 and lost just five. It wasn’t the winningest team in Tubbs’ 14 seasons at OU — he had four other teams that won more games — but the 1989-90 season will go down in Oklahoma basketball annals a one of the more memorable.

That was the season that Tubbs took the microphone to appeal to a Lloyd Noble Center crowd that was visibly displeased over the officiating in a game against Missouri not to throw items on the court.

The public address announcer was asked to advise the crowd that a technical foul would be assessed on the Sooners if it continued to throw debris on the court. After the PA announcement, Tubbs took the microphone and delivered the infamous line:

“The referees request that regardless of how terrible the officiating is, do not throw stuff on the floor.”

The result, as expected, was an immediate technical foul called on Tubbs.

The backstory to that unforgettable incident is that No. 11 Oklahoma was trailing then-No. 1 Missouri by double digits in the first half when an official whistled OU’s Mookie Blaylock for traveling. The crowd immediately reacted to the call and began hurling items onto the court. The rest is history.

It is quite possible that Tubbs purposely did what he did to incite his team. And it worked. Oklahoma caught fire and went on upset top-ranked Missouri 107-90.

Two days later, the Sooners hosted their second No. 1-ranked team in a little over 48 hours. Kansas had taken over the top spot following OU’s win over Missouri. The Jayhawks’ climb to No. 1 lasted less than a day, as Oklahoma routed Kansas 100-78 in front of a national TV audience.

The following week, after a 107-94 win over Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale, the Sooners would take over the nation’s top spot in the rankings. prompting this comment from Tubbs:

“I’m not sure anyone has played the No. 1 team in the nation back to back and beat ’em both. And we laid 100 on each one of them.”

The Sooners were led in the 1989-90 season by three key players: senior forward Skeeter Henry (17.3 points a game), senior center William Davis (16.6 points a game) and junior forward Jackie Jones (15.0).

Oklahoma and Kansas met again 10 days later in the semifinals of the Big Eight Tournament. a matchup of the country’s top two teams. The Sooners prevailed again — this time held under 100 points, however — winning 95-77. OU defeated Colorado to win the Big Eight postseason tournament championship.

For the third consecutive season, Oklahoma earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, this time as the No. 1 overall seed. The Sooners polished off a pesky Towson State in their opening- round game, but then had to go up against the North Carolina Tar Heels,  the No. 8 seed in the East Region bracket and not the typical opponent you’d expect to face at that stage of the tournament.

The Tar Heels ended Oklahoma’s run as the top seed in the 1990 NCAA Tournament, defeating the Sooners 79-77 on a buzzer-beating shot by UNC’s Rick Fox. It was a sudden and shocking ending to perhaps one of the top 10 seasons in Oklahoma basketball history and one that Sooner fans will not soon forget…even three decades later.