COLUMBIA, MO. • If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
That could be the unofficial slogan for the Missouri women’s basketball team this season. After a 24-win campaign ended with a disappointing first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament, Robin Pingeton looked at her roster this offseason and decided it was time for change. The Tigers have become a fixture in the NCAA bracket, but with her two best forwards gone from the program, Pingeton discovered a new identity for her team — and started the makeover with last year’s low point.
In the NCAA loss to Florida Gulf Coast, Mizzou struggled to defend the undersized Eagles and their wide-open, up-tempo style. Knowing her 2018-19 roster would be short on traditional post players, Pingeton found a solution in MU’s season-ending loss.
“We’re pretty much basing our whole offense off (Florida Gulf Coast),” senior guard and All-American candidate Sophie Cunningham said. “Coach will have different sets and stuff like that, but with our lack of size, we have to switch it up. I don’t think it’s a negative. I think it’s going to be really good for this program. It’s just different.”
The Tigers knew heading into the offseason they’d have to replace 6-1 Jordan Frericks, a second-team All-Southeastern Conference forward last year, the team’s second-leading scorer and one of the program’s all-time great rebounders. They weren’t counting on junior Cierra Porter to leave as well. In June, the 6-4 forward announced plans to stop playing the sport after enduring multiple knee injuries the last several years. With both gone from the frontcourt, the new roster features just four players taller than 6 feet.
With an abundance of guards in the rotation, Pingeton won’t abandon her motion offense principles, but the Tigers have embraced a “position-less” brand of basketball with some dribble-drive concepts designed to stretch the court and create more scoring chances for her smaller rotation.
That means Cunningham, a 6-1 natural perimeter player and one of the country’s best shooters, will play minutes at the five position. Just don’t call her a center. Amber Smith, a 5-11 junior, will get time at the four position, a power forward in traditional basketball jargon.
“Honestly, I think it’s going to be a fun style for us,” said Pingeton, whose ninth Missouri team began practice this week. “The teams we struggled the most with, we’re going to look more like those teams, just with our ability to spread out. In the past when Amber or Sophie had the opportunity to post up, it still seemed pretty clogged up.
“We keep talking to our girls about ‘position-less’ basketball. We’re excited about it. ... Nobody in men’s basketball or women’s basketball wants to be labeled a five, right? Everyone wants to be a stretch four or a perimeter player. I told them, ‘Just for the sake of diagramming (plays), we’re going to assign you a number. Don’t get caught up in that number.’ Sophie, of all players, if she’s willing to be called a one, two, three, four or five, everybody else better fall in line with that, too. Sophie doesn’t care what position she plays. She just wants to be on the court.”
Playing a new position doesn’t mean Cunningham will push her game away from the perimeter. She shot 45.7 percent from 3-point range last season, second-best in the SEC. Now, though, she’ll probably have more favorable matchups when opponents guard her with a taller, less agile defender.
“Honestly, it’s fun because if big girls are going to guard us on the perimeter we’re going to take them to the rim,” she said. “If they’re going to sag off we’re going to shoot it.”
And shoot it a lot. With a starting lineup that featured five starters ranging from 5-8 to 5-11, Florida Gulf Coast led the nation in 3-point attempts (1,190) and made 3-pointers (431) last year. In the 80-70 victory over Mizzou, FGCU leaned less on 3-pointers but used athletic ability and spacing to knife through the Tigers for 36 points in the lane.
As part of the offseason renovation, Mizzou will toy with more full-court defensive pressure, a staple of SEC foe Auburn, another team the Tigers studied this offseason. (For good measure, MU also recently hired former Auburn guard Katie Frerking as a graduate assistant.)
“We were a pretty good defensive team last year, but we didn’t get a lot of extra possessions out of it,” Pingeton said. “Being a guard-heavy team we’ll have opportunities to extend our defense.”
In the backcourt, the Tigers return senior point guard Lauren Aldridge, who’s expected to shoot more from the perimeter, and juniors Jordan Chavis and Jordan Roundtree (Kirkwood High) and add redshirt freshman Haley Troup, a 3-point specialist who transferred from South Carolina before last season, and freshman Grace Berg, a versatile 6-foot Iowa native who comes in rated the nation’s No. 37 recruit.
“This style,” Cunningham said, “is going to make it really hard for SEC teams to guard us.”