COLUMBIA — The statistical leaders atop the Big 12 Conference’s women’s basketball charts read like a who’s who in the game today.
Colorado’s Jackie McFarland, an honorable mention All-American last year, scores 18 points and gets eight rebounds per game. Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris leads the country by grabbing an absurd 16.4 rebounds per game, and adds 16 points per game for the Sooners when she isn’t playing for Team USA, like she did this summer. Texas Tech freshman Dominic Seals scores 14.4 points and grabs 9.2 boards per game.
Missouri (8-8, 1-2) vs. Kansas (11-5, 0-3)WHEN: 2 p.m. WHERE: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kan. RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM SERIES: KU leads 37-34
All are post players in the Big 12, which is making its case to replace the SEC as the best conference in the country.
Ten of the Big 12’s schools are either ranked or receiving votes in the latest Associated Press poll. Bracketology, a prediction of which teams will make the NCAA Tournament on ESPN.com, currently projects a record nine Big 12 entrants in this year’s field.
There are some outstanding guards in the conference, including Oklahoma State’s Andrea Riley, who is seventh in the country at 22.5 points per game, and Missouri’s Alyssa Hollins, who checks in at 38th with a 17.7 scoring average, but the Big 12 does the majority of its work down low.
For Missouri, who hasn’t had a dominant post player since Christelle N’Garsanet graduated and went on to play for the WNBA’s New York Liberty, it will take grit and determination to make a dent in the conference’s upper echelon.
The challenge started right away when Colorado came calling with McFarland on Jan. 9 in Columbia.
“If you want to be an All-American, you watch what she does,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. “She rebounds every time, she fights for position every time, she’s in constant movement, and she reads defenses really well. If you want to be an All-American, this is what they do.”
Even though McFarland scored 17 points and nabbed eight rebounds against the Tigers, Stein said she was pleased with the way her defense held up.
“I saw some really great things out of us,” she said. “The first few possessions were horrendous, but we got better. After that feeling out period, we were much, much better, and that’s what we’ll continue to do – to grow like that.”
Stein said she was especially proud of the way MU freshman Shakara Jones played against McFarland. It was the first Big 12 game of Jones’ career, and she survived a stiff test.
“I think she just gets better and better,” Stein said. “She’s got a great attitude. We keep working with her, telling her not to get down. You can see her looking to attack people, and I like that in her.”
Even to the casual fan, Jones’ lightning-quick development has been evident. The St. Joseph product went 0-for-9 from the field and had her shot blocked four times by Arkansas and All-SEC post player Lauren Ervin in November. But a poor performance like that no longer keeps her down.
“It used to be that someone would block her shot, she’d quit moving,” Stein said. “Now someone blocks it, and it’s OK. They could block it three times in a row, she’ll still get after it. That’s the mentality she’s developing, and she’s understanding that it’s part of the game.”
The high level of competition is no problem for Jones. She’s had a toughness instilled in her courtesy of her father Ron, a former Missouri men’s player.
“In my mind, it’s going to make me better,” she said. “I’m going to have to work extremely hard, because a lot of the posts in this league have been All-American, so I’m just trying to learn from them.”
If Jones has any trouble, she has teammates more than willing to pick up the slack. Senior Nicole Wilson has impressed in her first season playing basketball after a stellar volleyball career at Missouri. She has earned three consecutive starts at center, and is valuable in the lane for the Tigers.
“She’s very composed. She has a lot of poise out there,” Stein said. “It helps to have her out there when it comes to the the intensity and speed of the position and the game. She’s been more than holding her own.”
However, Jones probably gets the most help from a rather unlikely source. Sophomore forward Jessra Johnson has been one of the most dynamic players in the conference during her second season.
Johnson averaged only 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in limited minutes last year on a veteran-laden team. Even though she moves between starting and coming off the bench, she has consistently been one of the Tigers’ best players this season. The 6-foot-1 Johnson is eighth in the conference in scoring at 15.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 8.4 per game. Even though she’s undersized compared to her frontcourt brethren, she says she doesn’t mind the extra work.
“Being a smaller post means I have to be more physical, which I have no problem being,” she said. “I just have to use my head a little more being a smaller post and a bigger guard. It gives me a couple more options to score, but defense is a little harder. It takes a lot of work.”
Stein could barely express how much it means to have a dynamic player like Johnson in the lineup. Her versatility sets up a lot of the Missouri offense, and allows the team to exploit matchups on both ends of the floor.
“What’s special about Jessra’s game is that she reads things very well,” Stein said. “Her court sense enables her to make a quicker read, like on a backdoor cut. She’s a good passer and she handles the ball well.”
Jones acknowledged Johnson’s versatility, and she knows how much it adds to the team’s offensive package.
“If we put her at the guard spot, she’s bigger than most guards. If we put her down low, she’s strong enough to post up,” Jones said. “It takes a lot of will and a lot of passion amongst them trees, so for her to get rebounds and score like that is just huge.”
Johnson is a little more modest about her game, but she will have no choice except to accept the praise if she keeps playing the way she is now. Until then, she keeps learning.
“It takes hard work, dedication and passion to win in the post in the Big 12,” she said. “I’m just learning how to develop better and to meet my goals like the others already have.”