COLUMBIA — When Nicole Wilson was a standout volleyball player for four years at Missouri, she rarely sat on the bench.
She played in every match as a freshman and went on to set several school records, including highest all-time hitting percentage. But her athletics career at MU isn’t over.
The NCAA allows for a fifth year of eligibility for an athlete if it is spent playing a different sport. A chance meeting with women’s basketball coach Cindy Stein, who desperately needed more height for her squad, during an MU football game led the 6-foot-3 Wilson to join the basketball team.
But Wilson, despite playing volleyball and basketball in high school, hadn’t played basketball competitively in four years and had to adjust to a completely different sport. She played just 20 minutes in MU’s first six games of the season.
“It was totally different, I’m not used to sitting on the bench or anything like that,” Wilson said. “That was an adjustment, but I knew coming in that was going to happen, it’s been four years since I’ve played. It was just a challenge for me, it was something new.”
All of MU’s offensive and defensive sets were also new to Wilson, but a combination of her previous basketball experience and having spent the past four years learning volleyball plays made it easy for her to grasp the mental aspect of the game.
“I experienced a lot of different things in volleyball and four years of that experience kind of helps you adjust quickly to other things,” Wilson said.
What has been much harder for her to adjust to is the different physical nature of basketball compared to volleyball. As a post player she has had to prepare for the contact her position demands and get used to the constant play and motion in basketball.
“In volleyball you have some time to recollect after you score,” Wilson said. “Here it’s just up and down, up and down, you don’t have much time to focus on what just happened, you just have to go.”
As the season progressed and Wilson continued to practice and see some limited playing time, she began to feel comfortable again on the basketball court. She began to return the form she felt she was in when she won all-state honors three times at Lincoln Christian (Neb.) High School, but knows she needs to still get better.
“Obviously it’s a lot different level,” Wilson said. “I have to get that touch back from high school plus more.”
Wilson has had plenty of help from teammates throughout the season. She said they’ve done a good of keeping pressure off her and helping her get back in the swing of things on the court.
“They’ve been really open to letting me come on and they’ve been really understanding of me working to get back into shape and really understanding of what I need,” Wilson said. “When things are hard for me they back off, or they’re like ‘You’re OK, just keep working on this.’ They’ve been really helpful.”
Teammates also appreciate having Wilson around. She always brings a positive attitude to practice and games, and as the team’s only senior she has done well setting an example for younger players with her work ethic.
“She doesn’t always speak up and say a lot, but she’s always working on her free throws and she’s always working on something,” Stein said. “By example, she’s a tremendous mentor for a lot of them.”
That’s true especially concerning other post players. Freshman forward Shakara Jones and Wilson often are paired up together to shoot free throws and do other drills in practice. Jones said she has learned a lot from Wilson by talking about post play and that Wilson motivates her to keep playing throughout the rigors of a Big 12 season she experienced four times as a volleyball player.
“She’ll talk to me and be like ‘It’s OK to miss a shot. You’ll be fine because you’ll make the next five shots,’” Jones said.
Now with the Tigers in the middle of the conference season, Wilson has begun to play more. She is averaging more than 10 minutes per game after playing sparingly for much of nonconference play. She also got her first career start in MU’s last non-conference game against Delaware State and then started the Tigers’ first three conference games. Getting those starts helped Wilson feel like she belonged as a basketball player in the Big 12.
“I think that gave me a little more confidence knowing that I can do it and I can compete with them,” Wilson said.
Wilson earned those starts because she started to consistently show what she could do on the court. She doesn’t fill up the stat sheet, but she provides the Tigers with valuable height and defensive skills.
“She can play physical inside defensively, she gets her hands on a lot of basketball and she provides a good presence for us,” Stein said. “We may not look for her to score all that much, but at the same time she knows the offenses, she knows who to hit and she knows where to get the ball.”
“She’s going to play within herself and she’s going to try to defend for us and get her hands on the ball,” junior guard Alyssa Hollins said.
Even though she’s improved dramatically since the beginning of the season, there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially offensively. Stein wants the senior center to score more, but she has been happy with Wilson’s contributions so far this season. “She’s been a key in many, many games,” Stein said. “Maybe it’s only two or three minutes in stretches but every thing she does for us helps.”
Wilson easily shook the volleyball impulse to immediately get rid of the ball, but she still doesn’t feel as comfortable with the ball in her hands on offense as she did when she was one of the volleyball team’s go-to players when the team needed to score.
“I need to work on the basic game, slowing myself down when I get the ball and not freaking out that I have it and try to get rid of it fast,” Wilson said. “With volleyball I’d be like ‘give me the ball, I want that ball.’ Now it’s kind of like ‘I’ll take it, but I don’t know what to do with it.’ It’s a different confidence and I’m working on that.”
It’s been a season filled with work and often frustration, but Wilson said she was glad she met Stein and decided to play basketball. She’s having fun playing the game competitively again and the benefits greatly outweigh any work and stress that come along with the fun.
“There’s times where I think everybody thinks ‘Oh I can’t believe I’m doing this, I’m tired,’” Wilson said. “But when I look back at all the things I’ve accomplished, the things I’ve learned, the new girls, the new teammates I’ve met, I think I really enjoyed it a lot.”