Living up to legendary comparisons
Compare her to Jackie Stiles, but don't underestimate Casey Garrison's all-around game
Casey Garrison is well aware she's the product of her basketball roots. What Missouri girl could grow up in the southwestern part of the state at the beginning of this century and not come away shaped by her surroundings?
Think about it for a minute. It only makes sense that a decade after Jackie Stiles captured the basketball world's imagination by capping off a record-setting career at the school then known as Southwest Missouri State by leading her team into the land of giants and the 2001 Final Four, someone who grew up barely 30 miles from that school's Springfield campus would emerge as the driving force behind another group of Bears with postseason aspirations.
Sports lineages are often all about location. Nate Archibald begat Kenny Anderson in New York; Rick Mount begat Larry Bird in Indiana; and Patrick Roy begat Roberto Luongo in Quebec. And so Stiles's success surely spurred her successor in Springfield.
There's one problem with the story. That isn't the way it happened. Those aren't Garrison's roots.
Fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to look at it, we've got one of the best that's ever played the game of women's basketball who is probably going to sit on top of a lot of charts forever in Jackie Stiles. But to even be in the same category at the same school I think says a lot about Casey [Garrison's] game.” --Missouri State coach Nyla Milleson
Missouri State, having dropped the rest of the geography from its name in the years since Stiles, once again finds itself with one of the best players in women's college basketball. Once again, she's a humble kid who grew up shooting baskets all day, rain, snow or shine. But in Garrison's eyes, the local legends who influenced her were older brother Corey, who played at Southwest Baptist University in their hometown of Bolivar, and older sister Carie, who played at Evangel University in Springfield.
The other star in Springfield? The one with the rolled jersey and knee pads? Garrison was too busy playing to pay those Missouri State teams much mind.
"I kept up a little bit," Garrison said. "It wasn't huge until I probably got into high school. That's when I paid attention a lot more when I was being recruited. I mean, I did hear all the time about the Jackie Stiles era and everything and them going to the Final Four, but definitely as I was getting into high school, I paid attention a lot more."
Stiles was long gone by the time Garrison starred for Bolivar High School and chose Missouri State over Creighton or following in her sister's footsteps at Evangel, but the legend's presence lingers in Springfield. Garrison was the Missouri Valley's top freshman and its player of the year as a sophomore. She has scored 1,923 points in her career. At many programs, that would mean she's closing in on the all-time scoring record. At Missouri State, she's 151 points away from taking second place -- and more than 1,300 points out of first.
There are 29 instances in which a Missouri State player scored 35 points in a game. Stiles did it 21 times.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to look at it, we've got one of the best that's ever played the game of women's basketball who is probably going to sit on top of a lot of charts forever in Jackie Stiles," Missouri State coach Nyla Milleson said. "But to even be in the same category at the same school I think says a lot about Casey's game."
There is plenty to be said, much of it pertaining to everything but scoring records. As Garrison points out, her game is completely different than that of the program's most famous alum. Listed at 6 feet, Garrison leads the Bears in rebounds and assists this season in addition to points. She will likely leave the school second in points, but she could depart second in assists and in or near the top five in rebounds, steals and blocks.
It turns out Garrison did emulate what she saw growing up. So even as she grew to the size of a forward, certainly by mid-major standards, and developed the outside touch and finishing skills of a scorer, she played with the mindset of a point guard.
"My whole family is point guards, so I think that would have something to do with it," Garrison said of her three brothers and two sisters. "Watching some of their films, and my dad talking about the way they played and the way he played, there are some resemblances, just with court awareness and basketball IQ. Everyone in my family sees the floor really well and are pretty good passers."
At her best, Garrison can hold her own with just about anyone. She scored 26 points and shot 50 percent from the floor when Missouri State dropped a 65-63 decision at Kansas State earlier this season. Matched against Oral Roberts and Kevi Luper, last season's national scoring leader, Garrison got the best of her counterpart, 22 points to 17 points, and Missouri State won 85-79. The irony is that for Missouri State to be its best, it might need a player whose versatility sets her apart to be a little more like the single-minded Stiles.
"I think her strength is her playmaking ability, but at the same time, sometimes it's her greatest weakness too," Milleson said. "I think there are times that she does need to look to score a little bit more and maybe a little bit quicker in the game. I think she's gotten better at that as the years have gone on."
Although easily forgotten now, Missouri State didn't vanish from the national radar when Stiles moved on to the WNBA. Over the next five seasons, the Lady Bears made the NCAA tournament three times and won the WNIT, the only postseason title in program history. Only after all of that did things bottom out, Missouri State finishing last in the Missouri Valley and compiling a 7-21 overall record in 2006-07. Garrison's class restored pride, winning 12 conference games and at least 22 games overall in each of the past two seasons, but it has been almost six years since the last trip to the NCAA tournament.
For a program with a history as rich as Missouri State, changing that is the final prerequisite for greatness.
"I think sometimes it's hard for players, just like I know Jackie was compared to Melody Howard who was on the '92 Final Four team," Milleson said of Missouri State's other run to the national semifinals. "And I'm sure at some point in time, in the back of their minds, it becomes frustrating, because they just want to be their own person. But at the same time, it's very much an honor and very humbling to be able to be in the same category as those types of players."
Garrison didn't come to Missouri State to be the next Jackie Stiles. Whatever happens between now and March, she will leave with a legacy of her own. She set the bar sky high for anyone looking to be the next Casey Garrison.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.