Stories

Hughes and Jackson ‘going hard’ for Missouri basketball

COLUMBIA — Willie Jackson had a hunch at halftime of Missouri’s 81-55 win over Miami University (Ohio) that Frankie Hughes, a childhood friend and teammate since high school, was going to respond positively after a tough first half.

The freshman guard went 2 for 6 from the field and had to sit out 10 minutes because of foul trouble before the break.

After head coach Kim Anderson gave a halftime speech voicing his displeasure at the team’s one-point lead, Hughes started off the second half by converting a four-point play.

Hughes’ start to the second half sparked 55 team points over the final 20 minutes.

“I know what was about to happen,” Jackson said. “I told the whole coaching staff, ‘There it goes right there.'”

Friendship pays dividend on the court

Hughes and Jackson put in effort, compete and love what they do. Jackson calls it “going hard.”

Going hard has defined the two since middle school, when they competed on rival Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams. Even then, Hughes and Jackson knew enough about each other’s game that one usually ended up guarding the other.

“He was a force in middle school, AAU,” Jackson said “I know night-in-and-night-out what he’s going to do.”

They embodied the “go-hard” definition in high school when they competed for division championships at Cleveland’s Garfield Heights High School, and finally, at Missouri, where they’re contributing as freshmen.

Growing up in the same neighborhood, the two have known one another since they were in third grade. Hughes’ mother, Shondra Hughes, said if Jackson wasn’t over at her house, Frankie Hughes would be over at Jackson’s.

Spending so much time with each other, they developed a knack for knowing where the other would be. It’s paid dividends on the court.

Hughes and Jackson carried Garfield Heights to back-to-back Ohio Division I Final Fours in their junior and senior years. Garfield Heights’ head coach Sonny Johnson calls that feat “unheard of.”

Although Jackson, who committed to Missouri in Sept. 2015, wanted Hughes to play with him in college, Hughes chose to sign with Louisville.

After Louisville and Hughes chose to part ways in March, Anderson aggressively recruited Hughes and spent every day with the guard on his weekend visit to Missouri. The uncommon approach was what sold Shondra Hughes.

Jackson also made sure to stay in Hughes’ ear throughout the recruiting process, too.

“When you want to play with somebody you grew up with since you were younger, then you got to go get him,” Jackson said. “That’s what I did.”

Hughes committed to Missouri on April 10.

“You got your best friend right there with you,” said Terry Hughes, Frankie Hughes’ father. “How many people get the chance to go to school and play ball with your best friend?”

New team, old tricks

All Hughes needs is “a look” from Jackson on a fast-break to change the momentum of a game.

The “look” is a signal for Hughes, the ball carrier, to set up Jackson, the forward, for a potential game-changing alley-oop. Hughes said once you pull off the oop, the energy and momentum changes.

The two pulled off many alley-oops when they attended Garfield Heights, and in their first collegiate game, the two quickly showed Missouri fans an example of their continuity.

Missouri forced an Alabama A&M turnover, and Jackson sprinted up the court toward Missouri’s basket. He received the ball and saw that Hughes was running with him. With the two all alone by the rim, they decided to go back to their old tricks from high school.

Jackson bounced the ball to Hughes and elevated toward the rim. Hughes got the ball and delivered a perfect pass back to Jackson who slammed the ball home for an easy alley-oop. It was their first one as a collegiate duo.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of plays like that,” Jackson said. “It’s just exciting when you got somebody that knows on a break to throw it up, not hand it off.

“It’s fun having someone who knows you like that.”

Throughout Missouri’s season, Anderson has seen the impact that the two bring. Of the six-player 2016 recruiting class, Jackson and Hughes are logging the most minutes.

Through eight games, Hughes leads the team in scoring with 14 points per game, and Jackson is third on the team in rebounds per game with 5.3.

The duo have played bigger roles than most incoming freshmen on a Power Five basketball team because of the variety of their skills.

Anderson said in November that Hughes has emerged as a scorer and ball handler while Jackson is relied upon to play multiple positions.

“I think they have a good feel for each other on the floor,” Anderson said. “Frankie especially knowing where Willie is, where and when to pass to Willie.”

A support system

Both on and off the court, Hughes and Jackson lean on one another for words of encouragement, such as “Stick with it” and “Just keep playing your game.”

Basically, “Go hard.”

That mentality eased the concerns of their mothers, who dropped their sons off at a university more than 10 hours away from home. Shondra Hughes was comfortable leaving her son in the hands of Anderson and Jackson.

“If my mom dropped me off down here, when she pulls off, she knows I’m going hard, or his mom knows he’s going hard,” Jackson said.

Throughout their first semester of college, there have been ups and downs, Shondra Hughes said. But because Frankie Hughes and Jackson are roommates, their friendship has made the transition to college easier, the players said.

“You never talk down on your man,” Jackson said. “Even if it’s something he doesn’t want to hear, you always tell him the right thing.”

Brotherhood

In a span of 35 seconds in Missouri’s win over Miami, Jackson and Hughes took turns dunking the ball.

Jackson drove down the baseline on a pass from Jordan Geist and delivered a two-handed slam. Hughes followed on Missouri’s next possession with a one-hander on a fast break.

Between dunks, Hughes ran up to his life-long friend. The two forcefully high-fived, and Hughes yelled in Jackson’s face. The nature of what was said during the intense moment could not be commented on.

“It was like a brother-to-brother thing,” Jackson said laughing. “Basketball, it’s just basketball.”

Shondra Hughes frequently reminds her son that the chance that he has to play basketball isn’t guaranteed. And with a childhood friend who shares the same mentality, it isn’t forgotten easily.

“Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity to grow up and play with one of their friends,” Jackson said. “It’s just a brotherhood.”

Supervising editor is Brooks Holton.