LINCOLN — Jordan Hooper can be sheepish in the face of questions about the Nebraska women's basketball team and her continuing, growing legacy in the program. Few can shrug and aw-shucks their way through the rise of Husker hoops like the 6-foot-2 Alliance native does.
But there are times when she can be succinct as a sports writer, too.
“My last hurrah at Nebraska,” Hooper said to reporters. “I've had a blast for three years — I want to go out with a bang with my fourth.”
The stage is literally set for Hooper and the Huskers to do it.
NU is coming off a Sweet 16 run in last year's NCAA tournament, and this season, Pinnacle Bank Arena was chosen to host Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds of the Big Dance. Hooper — All-Big Ten for the past two years — is an All-America candidate. She played for Team USA in the World University Games this summer. And though she lost close friend and four-year starting point guard Lindsey Moore to graduation and the WNBA, three more starters — juniors Hailie Sample and Emily Cady and sophomore Rachel Theriot — return.
The Huskers — who finished 25-9 last year and No. 18 in the final USA Today coaches poll — are among a handful of favorites to win the Big Ten. The nonconference schedule features just two road games. They've sold more season tickets than ever. They could welcome the biggest crowd in program history when NU tips off the season at high noon Nov. 8 against UCLA. That's a lot of autographs for the homegrown star to potentially sign.
Most importantly to Hooper — who averaged 17.9 points and 8.8 rebounds last year — the team is gelling well enough even without Moore, the team's emotional and tactical leader for the past three years.
“The chemistry's there,” Hooper said. “We have four returning starters. That's a main thing. Our chemistry's still stayed. And our freshmen that came in, they're awesome. They took to us like peanut butter and jelly. We're pretty much like best friends with our freshmen and they're best friends with us.”
Can those “best friends” play the kind of high-energy, turnover-creating defense coach Connie Yori prefers? With just 11 players on the roster — all scholarship, no walk-ons — Yori wasn't sure in a season-opening press conference.
“The question is: Do we have enough depth to play the way we really want to play?” Yori said. “If we do that, we're going to have a lot of inexperience on the floor. We're trying to feel that out.”
Even in some campaigns when Nebraska started out playing that defense, injuries would sometimes force a switch before conference play. Last year, the Huskers incorporated zone philosophies into their repertoire, which led to the Big Ten's No. 1 scoring defense in league play.
Moore's hounding presence at the point was one reason why, but Hooper — not one of Nebraska's best defensive players in recent years — said she made strides this summer in Russia, where she and Team USA won a gold medal.
“I wasn't really the shooter, I wasn't really the scorer, so I mostly had to focus on defense,” Hooper said. “That's going to be a big help this year, too. Now Coach knows I can do it. So now I have to do it every single game.”
Hooper will be tasked with another unfamiliar role: vocal leader. That, too, was Moore's domain and former guard Kaitlyn Burke's job before that. Hooper — more of a perceptive-but-passive teammate whose scoring and rebounding have done the talking — finds herself trying to coach up three freshmen, forward Allie Havers and guards Hannah Tvrdy and Esther Ramacieri, and encourage Theriot, a Cleveland native even more soft-spoken than Hooper, to raise her chatter game, as well.
“I have to speak up,” Hooper said. “It's a different role for me, definitely. But it's exciting. There are days that are more frustrating than others. But, for the most part, we are getting better. And it's a lot of fun, helping younger kids — and helping myself along with that.”
Said Yori: “You're asking (Hooper) to score — and by the way, get us 10 rebounds. Get us 20 points and 10 rebounds. It is harder to demand that someone do everything well. Just leadership. It's not just about what Lindsey could do on the court, but her leadership was a strong point. Jordan has to improve in that area. ... We want to see her game grow a little bit more.”
If it does, Hooper and the Huskers may get a Sweet 16 homecoming to remember.