Mizzou went 13-0 against a fairly soft non-conference slate. Even the two Power 5 schools they played are at or near the bottom of their respective conference standings. We knew the Tigers were good. The start of conference play would give us a better feel for how good.
Better, but not perfect. The start of the conference slate was brutal, presenting the opposite problem of evaluating the non-conference performance. It would have been possible for Mizzou to start 0-6 in conference and still be a good team. Thankfully, the Tigers did better than that.
A Quick Game-by-Game Review
A game against a Tennessee team that had had injury-induced struggles earlier in the year but was still ranked provided a rude introduction to conference play. Clearly, the Tigers hadn't seen defensive intensity like that yet this season. 0-1
The Pingetonians followed that up with a road victory against a Georgia team that might not be as good as we originally thought. Still, it is no small feat to win on the road against even a middle of the road SEC team. 1-1
Next was a thorough 25-point road beating by the clear class of the conference and the #2 team in the nation, South Carolina. While there was nothing pretty about that game, for comparison's sake the Gamecocks thrashed Arkansas by 53 points in Columbia this season. 1-2
The best win of the season so far followed as Mizzou took down then #6 ranked Mississippi State by 12. Freshman phenom Sophie Cunningham had by far her best game of the conference season in the victory. 2-2
As young teams are wont to do, the Tigers turned around and played perhaps their worst game of the year in a 12-point road loss to a perplexing Arkansas team. The Razorbacks were terrible in non-conference but have played much better since the turn of the year, at least at home. Just like a Mike Anderson coached team, Arkansas has one lone road win, against LSU. 2-3
A gut-wrenching OT loss at #12 Texas A&M followed. The Tigers had come back to lead by 5 late in the 4th quarter, but mental mistakes cost them. 2-4
In their last outing, Morgan Stock quadrupled her season scoring average, leading Mizzou to victory over #22 Florida at home. Florida is a bit of a surprise team, as they'd been picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. 3-4
What have we learned?
- Mizzou is a solid top 25 team. There is still a long way between the Tigers and the very best teams, but they are 2-3 against top 25 teams, with one of the losses in OT.
- Sophie Cunningham is a very good player, but she's not all-world yet. After leading Mizzou through the non-conference, she's taking a back seat to Jordan Frericks and fellow freshman Cierra Porter in conference play. She tries to do too much sometimes, and often gets in foul trouble from silly fouls 80 feet from the hoop, limiting her time on the court. On the plus side, she has remained a really good defender and went 8-8 from the line in the win over Florida, with several of those in crunch time. And she's still third on the team in trifecta points in conference play.
- Cierra Porter is really good as well. While not as hyped as Sophie, Cierra can play. She has some solid post moves and a sweet left-handed stroke. She just needs to get stronger and get more experience.
- Jordan Frericks is the heart of the team. Solid to excellent play every game for the undersized forward. She makes the most of her frame near the hoop.
- It takes a while to come back from a torn ACL. Kayla McDowell is contributing more as the season goes on, but she looks like she struggles down the court and has no hops inside. It appears that Bri Porter is feeling lingering effects as well.
- Experience does matter. The seniors, all backups, are contributing more as the season goes on.
A look ahead
There are roughly five tiers in the SEC. All alone in tier 1 is South Carolina, who are nearly two standard deviations better than the second tier, which consists of Kentucky, MSU, and Texas A&M. Mizzou is in tier 3 along with Florida, Tennessee, Vandy, and Georgia. Tier 4 has Alabama and Auburn, while tier 5 has Arkansas, Ole Miss, and LSU.
Mizzou has nine games remaining: two each against tiers 2-4 and three against tier 5, including the eagerly anticipated (by me at least) home game against Arkansas. So the second half of the conference season looks significantly easier than the first part, and tonight's home game at LSU might be the easiest one left on the schedule.
In the latest bracketology, Mizzou is predicted to be a 7 seed, behind five other SEC teams. A strong run through the second half of the season would guarantee the Tigers make the tourney for the first time in a decade, and with a solid seed to boot.