Recently, I wrote a piece for ESPN.com about how the Big 12 had started the season, and I left Missouri out. Why? Well, it was sort of intentionally unintentional, if that makes any sense.
I started writing the story and planned only to hit the league’s highlights, not make it some 40-inch-long wade through the entire league. And when I was done, it wasn’t 40 inches … it was 50. (Cough). So I sliced Missouri. Because I thought, sadly, “Who is going to mind? Who is wildly curious to know my thoughts on the Tigers’ performance so far?”
As fate would have it, I did hear from someone later who asked why I didn’t include Missouri. So I should have just left it at 50 inches, right? But here’s basically what I originally wrote then: That the Tigers, picked to finish last in the Big 12 again, really should NOT finish last.
I felt they had enough talent and experience that they should avoid the cellar. But that the Tigers, too often, didn’t know how to get out of their own way to have success. Last season’s Big 12 tournament loss to Texas – in which the Tigers had the Longhorns beat until a turnover meltdown in the last 90 seconds – was the perfect example.
When I wrote the ESPN.com story, I said that I’d been following the Big 12 so long that nothing ever surprised me. And in the case of Missouri, that was definitely true. In the past, I wasn’t surprised when the Tigers could upset a team such as Oklahoma (which they did in the 2008 Big 12 tournament) … but I also wasn’t surprised when they’d fall to equally floundering Colorado.
When the Tigers pushed ranked Florida State in Tallahassee on Nov. 29 before falling 73-66, I thought, “Yes, but who knows what will happen in December?”
Alas, Missouri won its first three games this month, against Ball State, Bradley and Texas Pan-American. Of course, if a Big 12 school doesn’t win those games, you know its got problems. Turns out, though, Missouri now has problems of a more serious kind: seniors Jessra Johnson and Amanda Hanneman, the team’s leading scorers at 14.1 ppg and 13.3, have been suspended indefinitely by coach Cindy Stein.
Station KOMU/Channel 8 reported that the two were questioned by Columbia police about a fight early Friday involving an MU male cheerleader, in which he said the players broke his nose, gave him a black eye and dislocated his shoulder.
I guess it goes without saying – although I’ll say it anyway – that if this report is accurate, it could be worse than just your “standard” player fight (if there is such a thing) because it has the kind of details that might be picked up nationally by media outlets looking to make a joke of it.
We’re seeing this, of course, in the coverage of Tiger Woods’ troubles, and the allegations that his wife may have attacked him. When a man is physically violent toward a woman, we’re outraged and horrified. But when it’s a woman allegedly doing it to a man, too often it’s treated like it’s somehow “comical.” Which we all know is wrong … but look no further than the recent “Saturday Night Live” skit about Woods to see how pervasive that mindset is. Honestly, I have to remind myself about this all the time.
At this point, I don’t know any other details about the Missouri incident. We haven’t heard the players’ side of the story, and it’s unfair to make any kind of judgment until we do.
If Johnson and Hanneman are in serious trouble and miss the rest of the season, what a terrible ending that would be for two players – both from Missouri high schools – who have put a lot into the program.
Johnson, who is from Fayette, Mo., not far from Columbia, has been one of the Tigers’ top players since her sophomore year. Hanneman has battled more injuries than I could keep track of, including a back problem that limited her to nine games her freshman season. She played in 30 games as a sophomore, averaging 21.8 minutes. But last year, she was hurt again and averaged just 7.5 minutes in 26 games.
She had emerged this season as at least semi-healthy. She started all eight games for the 6-2 Tigers, averaging 29.4 minutes. Stein has said she was one of the toughest kids she’d ever coached. Hanneman was also an outstanding golfer in high school, leading Blue Springs South to two state championships in that sport. Hanneman’s parents are both dentists, and she helped them out with a program that provided free dental care to the needy.
In short, to the best of my knowledge as an observer, these Missouri players are both good kids. As are most women’s basketball players. I say nothing surprises me about the Big 12, but I certainly was surprised to hear about this.
Meanwhile, Stein is in the last year of her contract, which expires the end of April. This is Stein’s 12th season at Missouri, and she has had three NCAA tournament appearances, the last in 2006. That was the season Missouri had its best showing in the Big 12, finishing fourth.
The highlight of Stein’s time at MU was the 2001 Sweet 16 appearance, which the Tigers earned by upsetting Georgia in the second round on the the Dogs’ home court. In their other two NCAA appearances, the Tigers lost in the first round.
They have never really even sniffed a Big 12 tournament final, making the semifinals just once (2006, when they lost by 21 to top-seeded Oklahoma) and losing in the first round seven of the 13 years of that event.
Stein came to Missouri from Emporia State in Kansas, where her team was the Division II national runner-up in 1998 just before she took the Tigers job. She wasn’t hired by current athletic director Mike Alden, though; he came in a few months after she did. The fact that she’s serving out the final year of her contract is a rather strong indication that Missouri will “go another direction” when this season ends.
I’ve always gotten along with Stein – she’s a very funny person who I think wants her players to reach their potential as people as well as athletes. But at some point, with so much of the rest of the Big 12 having passed by Missouri in women’s hoops and considering the success other Tiger sports programs have had _ topics I wrote about earlier this year in back-to-back blog entries in May _ it seems likely that the school and Stein will part ways.
Now having to suspend her leading scorers obviously makes what’s already projected to be a difficult season for Stein even worse.