LINCOLN, Neb. – Freshmen are making a sudden impact in the Big 12.
Baylor's Odyssey Sims came into the season with the most fanfare and has done nothing to diminish her status as the preseason freshman of the year. But the list of rising stars is getting longer as conference play begins this week.
"Year in and year out we have great freshmen in our league," Texas coach Gail Goestenkors said. "This year, in particular, there is a great group of freshmen from all over. With the freshmen we have, it bodes well for the future of our conference."
Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg, Texas' Chassidy Fussell and Nebraska's Jordan Hooper rank among the league's top 10 scorers.
Keena Mays at Kansas, Sims and Ellenberg are 1-2-3 in 3-point shooting. Oklahoma State has a trio of freshman difference-makers, with Carissa Crutchfield leading the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, Vicky McIntyre fifth in field-goal percentage and blocked shots, and Tiffany Bias fourth in steals.
Sims was widely regarded as the No. 1 point guard in the 2010 recruiting class and one of the top prospects overall.
She had reconstructive surgery on a ligament in her right knee in March, and coach Kim Mulkey planned to ease her into the lineup. That plan was scrapped after starting point guard Kelli Griffin quit the team.
Sims scored 17 points and made all three of her 3-pointers in a 65-64 November loss to then-No. 1 Connecticut. She made five 3s and scored a career-high 25 points in a 77-43 rout of nationally ranked Syracuse two weeks ago and is averaging 12.1 points, shooting 53.2 percent and making 1.7 steals a game for the top-ranked Bears.
As in all college sports, Mulkey said, recruits are looking for schools where they can play immediately. She said the growth of club basketball has prepared them to step right into the college game and become major contributors.
"I don't know if that's good or bad that they play that much basketball in the summer," Mulkey said. "I do know there are a lot of freshmen playing a lot of minutes."
Coach Sherri Coale of No. 19 Oklahoma was forced to rush two freshmen into major roles after losing three seniors and having star guard Whitney Hand out of action the first two months of the season to finish her recovery from a torn ligament in her right knee.
Ellenberg, a 5-7 freshman from Las Vegas, is scoring 16.3 points a game and Hook, a 5-10 guard from Rogers, Ark., is scoring 11.4.
"Whitney is a key part of our team, and you can't really replace someone like that," Ellenberg said. "We needed someone to step up. It was an opportunity to show what we can do."
Ellenberg put up 34 points in 34 minutes against Ohio State last month, two points short of the freshman school record for points in a game.
"She's been an unbelievable weapon for us and she can score at will," Coale said. "She's got a ways to go defensively. She's a whole lot better with the ball in her hands than without it, which is often the case with high school superstars. No one could argue with her statistical line."
Fussell, a 5-10 guard from Troy, Tenn., was the Big 12 freshman of the week after a tournament in San Diego last month. She averaged a team-high 17.7 points for Texas over three games, and hit the winning 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left in an 80-77 win over Cincinnati.
Goestenkors said nothing Fussell has done is unexpected.
"When she was at our camp we were thrilled to see how physical, strong and committed she is," she said. "She's old school. She's constantly working on her game. We have to kick her out of the gym sometimes and tell her to save her legs."
Fussell, the 22nd-ranked Longhorns' second-leading scorer at 15.8 points a game, is the rare big-time recruit from Tennessee who didn't stay home to play for Pat Summitt. Fussell said the Lady Vols didn't show much interest in her until after she pledged to Texas.
"I thought that was disrespectful because I already committed," Fussell said. "I'm not all about names and titles. I could have gone to an (Ohio Valley Conference) school and done good. I felt this was the right fit."
Perhaps the biggest surprise — to everyone but coach Connie Yori and the rest of the Cornhuskers — has been Hooper.
The 6-foot-2 forward grew up on a ranch in remote western Nebraska. Though she became the fifth-leading scorer in Nebraska high school history at Alliance, there were plenty of folks who had their doubts about how the small-school star's game would translate to the major-college level.
Her team-leading 15.9 points and 6.9 points a game heading into Saturday's game against Oklahoma show she's made the transition.
"I saw some stuff online where people didn't think I was very good because I was out there playing no-name schools," she said. "When I read that, I was hurt by it. I can still remember it. It was right there, and it made me really mad. I'm still trying to prove to them that I can play a little bit."
Hooper is playing the same spot as All-American Kelsey Griffin, the No. 3 career scorer at Nebraska and the No. 3 overall pick in last year's WNBA draft.
Yori said Hooper's skills are more polished than Griffin's at a comparable point in her career.
Mulkey, Coale and Goestenkors said they had never heard of Hooper before this season. Hooper didn't play much club basketball, and she said her only scholarship offers came from Wyoming, Kansas State, Nebraska and some small schools.
"She definitely got under-recruited for how good she is," Yori said.
(This version corrects Ellenberg's record to freshman record in 14th paragraph and deletes reference to first-half scoring record.)