COLUMBIA — It doesn’t matter whether it’s out on a playground, in the backyard or in a gymnasium, seeing a team of five guys playing basketball wouldn’t make anyone think twice. Except when that team is playing against a group of women. For the Missouri women’s basketball team, though, it’s the norm.
The Tigers use an all-male practice squad most days of the week. The practice squad has featured as many as eight or nine men, but five or six guys are standard. The squad assists in many facets of Missouri’s practices, often running opponent’s plays, participating in defensive drills and scrimmaging with the team.
Missouri (11-11, 1-8 in the Big 12) at Kansas State (11-11, 3-5)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan, Kan.
RADIO: KWWC/90.5 FM
“They’re awesome,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. “We can do so much with them because otherwise your own players have to run the other team’s stuff, and you just want them to remember your stuff. Sometimes that’s a task, especially with the younger kids.”
Playing against the male practice squad offers new challenges for the Tigers.
“With them being around, it gives you opportunities against stronger, quicker players,” junior guard RaeShara Brown said. “They do a great job of simulating the plays and the personnel of the opposing team.”
The practice squad is an eclectic group of guys. Missouri’s assistant coaches are in charge of finding people for the squad. Some players were stars in high school that want to keep playing. Others tried out for the men’s team and got cut. The assistants even check out the Rec Center for talent. Advertisements have been placed around campus too.
“It’s a way to play every day,” said graduate assistant manager Eric Thibault, who spent the past three years on the practice squad and continues to fill in during times of need. “You get to play in Mizzou Arena which is pretty cool.”
The practice squad has developed a close relationship with the Tigers. The squad attends all home games and offers support any time possible. In return, the squad gets team shoes and a chance to be part of something special.
“Just the camaraderie between the program and those guys,” Stein said. “They’re definitely a big part of the program.”
With men and women clashing on the basketball court, one might think the intensity would be dialed down a bit. It turns out to be the opposite.
“They go their hardest,” Brown said. “They don’t take plays off. Making sure we play our hardest when they’re guarding us.”
“For a few guys, there’s probably some limits,” Thibault said. “They wouldn’t go barreling down the lane like they would (against other men), partly because you don’t want to get somebody hurt. But in terms of actual competitiveness, you don’t really have much choice because if you try to go easy, one of the girls will just pop you.”
With a distinct athletic advantage, it can be embarrassing for members of the practice squad when one of the women makes them look bad.
“It’s happened once or twice,” Thibault said sarcastically, chuckling with the mention of the topic. “You kind of shrug it off. You might hear about it from the girls. I get over it.”
With this a common occurrence, the trash talking that arises makes the practice more cheerful and upbeat.
“No one likes to get beat,” Stein said. “There’s good ribbing back and forth the entire time.”
Despite the lighthearted jokes, the practice squad has an important job to do. Missouri plays in the Big 12 Conference where seven teams are ranked in the AP Top 25. The athletic ability of the men on the practice squad helps prepare the Tigers for what they will see in the games.
“It makes you have to play at a high level,” Stein said. “In our league, that’s what it’s all about. Those guys challenge you to have to do that every day.”
With the practice squad getting a lot of repetitions during drills and scrimmages, some of the bench players might not get the type of work they need.
“It’s tough to know how many repetitions,” Stein said. “But again, this is not like the YWCA where everybody gets equal playing time and you’ve got to get everybody in. We’ve got to play at such a high level. It’s more important for us to get our kids at that high level but you try to do everything you can to get everybody in for repetitions.”
When Missouri plays at Kansas State at 7 p.m. Wednesday night in Manhattan, Stein hopes the practice squad will have done the work to prepare her team for battle.
“They’re not in it for personal gain or money,” Thibault said. “It’s not a glory job. Most of them just really like basketball.”