COLUMBIA, Mo. — Robin Pingeton is tired of hearing the words “rebuilding year.”
Yes, the Missouri women’s basketball team lost its star, Sophie Cunningham. But in Pingeton’s eyes, the combination of the Tigers’ senior leadership and strong freshman class means there shouldn’t be much of a drop.
Cunningham will go down as one of the best players to wear a Mizzou uniform. She broke the program record for career points last season, with 2,187. She was selected to the All-Southeastern Conference first team three years in a row. The Phoenix Mercury selected her in the second round of the WNBA draft.
The Tigers made the NCAA Tournament in all four of Cunningham's years on campus and averaged 23 wins each of the last three seasons. But at the end of October, Missouri was picked to finish ninth in the SEC by the league’s coaches, probably because of the uncertainty about life after Cunningham.
“That did not make anyone happy,” freshman forward Hayley Frank said of the ranking. “I think people doubt us with so many newcomers, but we're all definitely here to prove a point that we're going to be at the same level we've been at.”
To prove that point, the Tigers will need to fill the void left by Cunningham on and off the court. Pingeton said seniors Amber Smith, Hannah Schuchts, Jordan Roundtree (Kirkwood) and Jordan Chavis have stepped up to lead by committee this year.
“I think (we) carry different roles,” Schuchts said. “Some people will be more vocal on the court, some people will be more vocal off the court, some people lead by example. But it's kind of the combination of all that between the four of us that has, I think, made it successful.”
Replacing Cunningham’s talent on the court is a tall order, and Pingeton has repeatedly said that she’ll need all 11 players to contribute for the team to succeed. Every eligible player played in Mizzou’s two exhibition games. Junior guard Elle Brown stole the show against Fontbonne, leading all scorers with 24 points while making 11 of her 13 shots from the field. Schuchts had a double-double in the same game. Redshirt freshman Brittany Garner finally is healthy after suffering a shoulder injury last year and led the team in rebounds in the first exhibition with eight.
Freshmen Frank and Aijha Blackwell (Whitfield School ) are highly-touted newcomers who have shown promise through the exhibition games. In her first appearance at Mizzou Arena, Blackwell played 25 minutes, made three of four shots from 3-point range and led all scorers with 25 points. In the next exhibition, Blackwell had nine steals and seven assists.
Franks, a 6-foot-1 forward from Strafford, Mo., has been just as impressive, with 22 points and six rebounds while making 80 percent of her shots from beyond the arc in her first game as a Tiger.
“They're pretty elite-level kids, and they're going to come in and make an immediate impact for us,” Pingeton said. “I think Aijha is the most explosive and powerful athlete that I've coached in my 30 years of coaching. Get out of her way. . . . She can guard, she can defend, she can rebound, she can score the ball.
“I think Hayley Frank's a kid that can score on three different levels. . . . I think when you're in a situation where you’ve got the two of them and Amber in the mix playing together, it's an awfully hard guard, and you're going to have to pick and choose how you're going to defend that.”
Smith, a 5-11 guard, was selected to the preseason All-SEC first team in October. Last season, she led the team in rebounds with 243 and double-doubles with eight. Pingeton praised Smiths’ work ethic and said she’s seen Smith improve each year.
“She was willing to plug in the holes that we needed when Sophie was doing Sophie, but to me, what we need from Amber this year is that consistency of that double-double,” Pingeton said. “That's a kid that should be averaging a double-double night in and night out.”
Also notable are Missouri’s three transfers, Shug Dickson (Lutheran North), Ladazhia Williams and Shannon Dufficy. Pingeton isn't counting on the NCAA to grant their waiver requests for instant eligibility, but that it’s still possible the Tigers could receive an “early Christmas present” and be allowed to play some of their newcomers. Dickson, a former two-time Class 3 all-state selection, is on her third college stop after starting at Tulsa then spending part of last season at Texas Tech.
Pingeton hopes an up-tempo motion offense will help carry the Tigers through a tough non-conference schedule and dispel doubts about a Cunningham-less Mizzou team. She’s made sure her team knows that this isn’t a rebuilding year, and begins when the Tigers entertain Western Illinois at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“Of course, we're going to miss Sophie and we're going to miss the seniors,” Schuchts said. “But we still have a lot of talent. In our minds, it's not a rebuilding year. In our minds, we're going to continue to prove people wrong and continue to finish at the top.”