Despite Mizzou's well deserved three-point gunner reputation, coach Robin Pingeton's preferred style of play is inside out. We really saw evidence of that with last year's team, where strong play from Cierra Porter at the high post and Jordan Frericks in the low post opened up the outside shooters.
This evolving style of play and the addition of the slashing ability of McDonald's All-American and eventual SEC Freshman of the Year Sophie Cunningham led Mizzou to a seventh place finish in the SEC and to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
While Frericks was stellar last year and Porter showed great promise, Porter was recovering from multiple injuries and couldn't play to her full potential. Porter's sister Bri and Kayla McDowell were both recovering from ACLs. While both of them showed flashes, you could tell the impact the surgeries had on them. So while you could see where Mizzou wanted to go, a lack of depth sometimes hampered them.
So, this year was really primed to be the breakout year from Mizzou post play as Mizzou's forwards all fully recovered from their injuries. Then the injury bug bit again. Frericks tore her ACL on an uncontested layup, and Bri Porter suffered her fifth(!) ACL injury, effectively ending her career.
Meanwhile, Cierra Porter is still recovering from Lisfranc surgery in the spring and will be limited to start the season. On top of all that, McDowell has been dealing with a hamstring injury, which brought Mizzou down to 9 healthy players and scratched the Black and Gold game. What was looking like a well spring of quality depth has now become a hole, at least in the near term, in the Mizzou line up.
Pingeton has been steadfast in saying that this tsunami of injuries does nothing to change the goals of this year's team. Let's take a look at how what the team needs to do to move solidly into the top half of the SEC and advance further in the NCAA tournament.
With the injury to Frericks, this is Cunningham's team now. She is the key to success. While she doesn't have to be a high volume scorer for the team to be successful, she does have to be on the court. Her biggest weakness is her hyper aggressiveness on defense, which leads to too many silly fouls far away from the basket. In the exhibition games, she had four fouls and one foul, so there's no clear indication of how she will do on this front.
A good but not great shooter, her strength is going to the hoop. When fouled, she shoots an excellent percentage on her free throws. If teams dare to put a smaller player on her, the 6"1 Cunningham will eat them up in the post. In the fourth quarter of the first exhibition game, Sophie played the post a la Magic Johnson subbing for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back in the day. Mizzou will go where Cunningham leads them.
Porter started both of Mizzou's exhibition games, but her minutes have been limited as she recovers, logging 18 and 8 minutes in those games respectively. At 6'4", Porter is Mizzou's one true big and is very effective from the high post, consistently draining 18 footers and passing well.
While Mizzou should be able to largely cruise through a not-very-challenging non-conference slate with limited minutes from Porter, she will need to be healthy when SEC play kicks off with Georgia on New Year's Day.
Mizzou's senior guard is often a high volume shooter and when she heats up, it is a beautiful thing to behold. She shot 50% from the field, including 50% from three in the two exhibition games. Her ability to stretch defenses is key to Mizzou's success.
The fifth year senior point guard and Sophie's older sister is a former 2 guard who transitioned to the point when Lianna Doty had a Lisfranc injury of her own two years back. Lindsey can shoot, as evidenced by her 40%+ shooting from three last year. With the graduation of the Stock twins, Lindsey will need to pick up the volume some while maintaining that excellent percentage.
The newcomer to the starting lineup, giving the Tigers four guards and one forward, is freshman Amber Smith from Shreveport, LA. Amber was a four-time all-state selection in Louisiana, averaging over 20 points per game. She picked up her contribution some from the first exhibition to the second. It will be very interesting to see what and how she contributes to the team tonight.
With more scholarship slots (and unfortunately way more ACL injuries), redshirts are still a thing in women's hoops. The 6'2" freshman from Tallahassee, FL, redshirted last year, adding strength and adapting to the college game. Like Smith, Schuchts made a stronger contribution in the second exhibition. Hopefully that is a sign of progression and not that Truman State is notably worse than Central Missouri. With the lack of depth inside, Schuchts will need to be contribute solid minutes for the Tigers, especially in the early going.
The fifth year senior is Mizzou's back up point guard and a solid contributor. She and Lindsey Cunningham spend some time on the floor together as well, with Lindsey sliding over to the off guard slot. She started for Mizzou her sophomore year, after which she was named SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year. She has also twice been named to the SEC Community Service Team.
The redshirt junior started as a sophomore, averaging 8.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 23.6 minutes per game until tearing her ACL against Colorado. Last year, her averages were less than half that as she worked to come back. As the season wore on, she showed more flashes of her old self. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury has kept her out of the lineup for the exhibition matches, and it is unclear when she will be able to play again. A return to her sophomore form would provide a huge boost for the Tiger's inside game.
The 5'-7" freshman from Lexington, NC, has played 22 minutes in both of Missouri's exhibition game. Continuing the theme, she had more success against Truman State, scoring in double figures.
The third Jordan on the roster is a 5'-9" freshman guard from Kirkwood whose dad Bill played hoops at Mizzou in the early 1980's. She logged 7 minutes against Central Missouri but did not play against Truman State. It's unclear what her role will be for the Tigers this year.
Much like last year, the Tigers non-conference schedule isn't overly demanding, although it may feature a few more teams in Sagarin's pre-season top 100. The toughest opponent is a potential matchup with #50 Georgia Tech in the Junkanoo Jam. The other top 100 teams are Creighton, Missouri State, Saint Louis, UC Riverside, UT Martin, and potentially Dayton in the Junkanoo Jam. Even with their injuries, the Tigers should make it through the non-conference schedule unscathed or nearly so.
The SEC once again shapes up as one of the toughest conferences in the nation, rating #2 in the pre-season Sagarin ratings. South Carolina is again clearly the cream of the crop and a final four contender. Kentucky is probably the number two team in the conference. Then comes the pack:
(While Missouri is #24 in the AP poll, they are #28 in Sagarin)
That's a lot of teams without much separation. With a decent gap to the next tier, and a bigger gap below that, the games against these teams will be the true test of whether Mizzou can continue to progress and solidly establish themselves in the top half of the SEC.