LINCOLN — Jordan Hooper couldn't figure out last year why one of her good friends, Lindsey Moore, was so tough on her Nebraska women's basketball teammates.
“There were definitely moments where I thought she was being way too hard on not only me but other players,” Hooper said recently. “That she was being cranky all the time.”
Now a senior herself, Hooper gets what Moore was trying to do — push NU to maximize its potential. It paid off in a Sweet 16 run.
But Moore was a natural leader, an alpha guard who projected toughness. Moore wasn't the player teammates would call the funniest on the team — unless she was trying to be.
That label could apply to Hooper, the 6-foot-2 Alliance native and lone senior on a Husker team carrying more expectations than any other in school history. Preseason Big Ten favorite. A potential host of an NCAA regional at Pinnacle Bank Arena. That's right — a Sweet 16 run at the minimum. NU volleyball standards.
And Hooper now has the leadership baton for the No. 19 Huskers (8-2).
“I better understand how Lindsey acted last year,” Hooper said. “How she carried herself and would yell, kind of, at the team. I understand that more because I'm in that role. You have to do that to be, I guess, respected by not only your teammates but also your coaches. You have to carry yourself in a different way.”
And though it's subtle, Hooper does carry herself differently. More direct answers. Fewer shrugs. Hooper will always be self-deprecating and a little sheepish. But those are more accents to her personality than they used to be. It's cool to see college athletes gain self-awareness and find their voice.
“I'm a lot more vocal,” Hooper said. “Last year, I wouldn't hardly say anything to anybody. I wouldn't talk out on the floor. If you got something out of me, that's great. But this year, I have to be a leader because I am a senior.”
The weeks Hooper spent in Russia winning a World University Games gold medal broadened her world view, gave her confidence. Hooper wasn't the go-to player in that bunch, but she belonged. And she saw she could affect the game in more ways than just hitting a jumper. In Saturday's 63-38 win over Creighton, she scored just five points, but played good defense and grabbed 15 rebounds. She dominated with dirty work.
Hooper's kept her stats healthy — 19.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game — with the bull's-eye squarely on her back. She's rebounding better than ever, and she's more aggressive and savvy. She's had to adjust her shooting to a new gym, which can be more of a process than a snap. She's learned to score more ways than the deep 3. She even went a game without shooting beyond the arc — and scored 33 points anyway.
And she's finding moments where she can lead. Hooper said she's still “goofy,” but takes the game, film sessions and practice “very seriously.” Coaches challenged Hooper to seize ownership of her final season, and she's making the effort. Which may not pay off in full until conference/NCAA tournament time.
“I'm still not a wonderful leader, by any means,” Hooper said. “I still have a huge ways to go to be the same leader Lindsey was. But I think I've made a jump in my own way. I'm not trying to be Lindsey. I'm trying to be Jordan.”
No clear front-runner in conference race
The Big Ten race in women's basketball appears entirely up for grabs as league play inches closer. Preseason favorites NU, Penn State and Michigan State have all taken games on the chin. The Nittany Lions just lost at South Dakota State. The Spartans lost to IPFW. Purdue has lost big to Stanford and Duke. The Boilermakers' usually reliable defense has been poor this season at 69.9 points per game.
Iowa is arguably off to the best start. The Hawkeyes' two losses — at Colorado and Iowa State — are to undefeated teams. They might have the best win for the league over 8-1 Syracuse. Iowa has only one game against Nebraska this season, which is good news for the Hawkeyes. NU has won all six matchups since the Huskers joined the Big Ten.
Only one team — 11-0 Indiana — remains undefeated. The Hoosiers are an intriguing story. Three of the top five scorers are freshmen, including Larryn Brooks, who's averaging 19.2 points per game. IU probably gets ground up a little in Big Ten play by better defenses, but good freshmen are never the easiest to scout until you see them in person.
As of Tuesday, according to realtimerpi.com, the Huskers still had the league's second-worst RPI at 104. NU's best wins — at Utah, vs. UCLA, Alabama and Creighton — aren't worth much yet. The Utes' 82-74 win Saturday over previously unbeaten BYU will help, though. The loss to Washington State will be a seasonlong blemish on NU's résumé — the Cougars are 5-5 with losses to Dayton and Hawaii.
NU's loss to North Carolina will hold up just fine. The Tar Heels are a year away from being a Final Four contender, and they have the talent to be the nation's best on the right night.