When two friends approached Steve Johnson at the gym Sunday and told him a player at Missouri was on pace to break his 31-year-old single-season field goal percentage record, the former Oregon State star admits he was stunned.
For years, Johnson believed his 74.6 percent shooting from his senior season was almost unmatchable in today's college basketball. Then he went home, scoured the internet and learned that 6-foot-8 Missouri senior Ricardo Ratliffe is shooting a blistering 77.2 percent this season.
"Honestly, I didn't think anybody would break it," Johnson said. "I thought the two ingredients it would take was a good low-post player focused on getting high-percentage shots and a very good passing team. That's a hard combination to find."
Ratliffe will need to sustain his current pace for the next six weeks to take Johnson's place in the Division I record books, but his efficiency has been incredible for a player averaging 14.6 points per game. Besides Ratliffe and reserve Stephen F Austin forward Taylor Smith, no player in the nation is even shooting 70 percent this season.
The primary difference between Ratliffe and Johnson is how they produced most of their points.
Ratliffe has an effective hook shot that he can score with in post-up situations, but back-to-the-basket scoring hasn't been his primary contribution to Missouri's torrid 18-1 start. Instead he capitalizes on the driving and dishing ability of Missouri's unselfish guards, scoring most of his points cutting to the rim, via pick and rolls or crashing the weakside glass to put back an offensive rebound.
Johnson, on the other hand, was the focal point of an Oregon State team ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of the 1980-81 season. The All-American averaged 21 points and 7.7 rebounds that season, showcasing a formidable hook shot and an uncanny ability to find holes in a zone or to beat frequent double teams.
"When you're an effective low-post player and a go-to guy, the defenses are set to stop you," Johnson said. "Therefore if you're going to score, you've got to do a very good job of preparing your space before the ball gets there, knowing where the double teams are coming from and knowing how to create holes in the zone. Then you need to have teammates who can get you the ball at the right time because those opportunities don't open up very long."
Now a commercial real estate expert still living in the Portland-area, Johnson has yet to see Ratliffe play this season. He intends to make a point of watching a Missouri game on TV in the next week or two in order to get a glimpse of the player who is threatening a record he believed to be safe.
"It's a nice record, one I've had for 30 years," Johnson said. "It's amazing that he's on pace. If he breaks the record, I'll definitely try to reach out and congratulate him."