Willie Jackson and Frankie Hughes bring Cleveland connection to Missouri

The two freshmen on Missouri’s basketball team have known each other since they were toddlers.
Freshman forward Willie Jackson, 2, moves the ball down the court with three minutes left in the third quarter of the home game facing Alabama A&M.

In their freshman year of high school, Willie Jackson told Frankie Hughes his plan.

“We’re going to go to the same school,” Jackson said to his friend.

Four years later, he was proven right. Jackson and Hughes, now freshmen on Missouri men’s basketball team, committed to play college basketball together with the Tigers.

The road to Columbia from Cleveland, where they grew up, wasn’t straight. Jackson committed to Missouri in September 2015, but Hughes chose a different initial path.

Hughes signed a letter of intent with Louisville in November 2015.

Willie Jackson, though, wasn’t ready to part ways with his longtime friend. The two had known each other since Jackson was 4 years old and Hughes was 3.

“[H]e committed, then I just kept pushing him,” Jackson said. “It took a little bit of work, but that’s my boy.”

In March, Hughes was released from his letter of intent with Louisville. The 6-foot-4 combo guard signed with Missouri on April 13.

"Everybody is on the same page for Mizzou,” Hughes said upon announcing his commitment. “It's exciting to know the program really is a family. I feel like the coaching staff and players all really know each other and have great relationships. That stood out to me.”

Just like that, Jackson and Hughes were playing together once again.

The two excelled at Cleveland’s Garfield Heights High School. Jackson, a forward, averaged 21 points and 14 rebounds per game during his senior year. Hughes averaged 19 points per game in his senior year at Garfield Heights, which made the state semifinals that year for the second straight time.

With Texas transfer Jordan Barnett ineligible until mid-December, Jackson will play primarily power forward.

“Willie’s a guy who we’ve tried to play at two spots, but we’re trying to play him at the 4 until we get Jordan Barnett back, and working with him to play more on the perimeter,” coach Kim Anderson said Thursday during his press conference.

While Jackson’s role with the team will focus on post offense and rebounding, Frankie Hughes plays the part of a pure scorer. “Frankie has emerged as a guy who certainly can score baskets, especially from the perimeter,” Anderson said. “Frankie’s shot the ball. We need him to shoot the ball.”

The two highly regarded freshmen bring not only their skills, but also “a good feel for each other on the floor,” Anderson said. The coach noted that Jackson is especially good at finding an open Hughes for baskets.

Jackson and Hughes have cultivated their talents over a lifetime. They grew up together, practiced together and played together. Now, they’ve taken their talents from Cleveland to Columbia, teammates once again in a new era.

Hughes and Jackson maintain a close relationship.

“Just growing up with him in childhood, he’s kind of like a brother to me,” Hughes said of Jackson.

For Hughes, the decision to forgo Louisville in favor of Mizzou wasn’t too difficult. He wanted to keep playing with Jackson.

“Separation is kind of hard,” Hughes said. “So as time went on, we decided we were just going to keep this thing rolling as long as we can.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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