On Thursday evening, Tiger Scholarship Fund put on a MIZ-ZOOM event with featured guest, WBB coach Robin Pingeton, who dug into the current state of the program, her thoughts on this past season, and what she sees for 2020-21. Here’s what we learned!
Team Bonding in the wake of COVID
We all know by now what Coach Drink is doing to prepare for his rapidly-approaching upcoming season (hopefully), but what about winter sports teams? What’s their day-to-day life like in the wake of COVID-19? How do coaches keep the team engaged?
Coach Pingeton said the challenge at first was not to lay it on so thick that it would become overwhelming and an annoyance to the players. Admittedly, she said, they probably overdid it a bit at first, as they were worried about the players and their families and if they were staying on top of workouts and schoolwork. I personally think this would be very difficult to manage, being a former teacher and high school coach myself. You go from seeing your kids and interacting with them daily, being able to check in and be proactive in making adjustments to just— nothing. It’s got to be an adjustment.
Currently, they’ve cut back to weekly Zoom meetings, and the staff calls different team members periodically throughout the week so they get a chance to talk to everyone. The team is also doing more than just talking about basketball when they get together, she said. Right now, they are reading Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great by Joshua Medcalf as a team, and they take time out to do lighthearted activities like play games and do show & tells. Coach P also has plans to have motivational speakers, alumni, former & present WNBA players, as well as people who can talk to them about life skills- finances, leadership, nutrition, etc. in future meetings.
Reflections on this past season
Look, we all know that last season was not the greatest. They finished the season 9-22 overall (5-11 in the SEC), and it got really ugly at times. It was hard to stomach, watching them give up the ball again and again and continually get out-rebounded. They weren’t tall enough, and it seemed to be lacking in overall athleticism to succeed in the ultra-competitive SEC. So if that’s the way that fans saw it, how did the coaching staff feel?
Coach P maintains that while the results on the scoreboard didn’t necessarily show it, she saw growth in her team, and thinks a lot of lessons were learned in the fire. The young players especially had an opportunity to grow and learn. Freshmen Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank were not used to being in a program with so many growing pains; they came in highly recruited and played on really good high school teams. Hell, Frank hadn’t lost a basketball game since her freshman year of high school!
But, despite the adversity, they stuck around. While Pingeton stressed she still has plenty to work on (turnovers, 3-point %, etc), Blackwell’s confidence increased as the season progressed — scoring 13+ points in all but one SEC game, and her rebounding improved drastically, finishing the season ranked 7th in the SEC (2nd among freshmen). As for Frank, she could have been a starter all year long with the numbers she put together. In SEC play, she averaged 11.9 points a game, shooting 43 percent from the field and 38 percent from three.
Anyone watching games this season likely noticed the talented (and TALL!) bench the Tigers carried with four top-notch players sitting out all season. Coach P felt RS freshman Micah Linthacum really benefited from the team travel and warm up in SEC venues. She praised Tulsa/Texas Tech transfer (and St. Louis native) Shug Dickson’s phenomenal passing and great court awareness. Aussie Shannon Dufficy averaged a double-double at Utah State, can stretch the court, and is a phenomenal rebounder. South Carolina transfer LaDazhia Williams, who has two years left, has great athleticism and finishes at a high percentage inside.
As for the newcomers, Coach P expects Auburn transfer Lauren Hansen (who may have to sit out) to provide a spark. She was a 4-star recruit in 2019 and is described as, “gritty, tough, and relentless.” I also like the idea of adding a 3-point shooter to the team, given this past season’s struggles. Her seven 3-pointers against Drake were tied for the most in the SEC.
The Tigers were lucky to get both Mama Dembele and Sara-Rose Smith, who bring a wealth of experience at the international level (Spain and Australia, respectively), on campus before the COVID shutdown. Dembele is lightning quick and was one of 64 prospects chosen to participate in the 2020 NBA Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, which took place during NBA All-Star weekend. Smith was a member of the Australia’s FIBA U-19 World Cup and captured bronze at the 2018 Youth Olympics playing 3x3.
As every Missouri coach has mentioned, sealing the borders is SO important. Coach Pingeton said that being able to recruit elite-level kids and getting them to stay home really helps to build the already-great fanbase— they ranked fifth in the SEC in attendance (27th in the nation), and that’s with an “off” season (side note: wish I could say the same thing about men’s hoops). Part of Coach P’s pitch goes something like this: “Those girls you’re playing against in AAU? Think of how special that could be if you’re now playing together on the same team.” This was part of the sell to Jayla Kelly to get her to remain in-state. The #72 recruit by ESPNW has great size, a great motor, and a physical interior game.
Overall, Pingeton thinks that this will definitely be one of her most talented teams from top to bottom, but at the same time, she stressed the importance that the locker room and the leadership have to be right in order for them to be successful.
Non-conference scheduling and roster management
While Coach P stressed that they still want a challenging schedule (this season was brutal), they are going back to the drawing board a bit. With budgetary concerns, they’re trying to scale back the travel a bit and schedule more regionally.
As mentioned earlier, there were definite weaknesses to the team last year, and while Pingeton maintains that it was not a rebuilding year, the loss of Sophie Cunningham really seemed to hinder them, perhaps more than they thought it would. Amber Smith regressed a bit and was likely not ready to be the “alpha.” Freshmen are freshmen, and even though the Tigers had two terrific ones, they were still subject to lapses in defense, ball handling, etc. To be fair, the entire team struggled in those areas at times. They were out-rebounded by opponents this season 1182-1098 and 568-519 in SEC play, and the turnover rate was... scary (16.7 per game vs. 12.8 per game overall; 17.7 vs. 12.7 in SEC play). YIKES.
With the addition of notably good rebounders in Dufficy, Smith and Williams, there is hope this will improve. Hopefully the added height coming in will help as well— five of the new Tiger players are over 6 feet, with Williams and Linthacum topping 6’4.
With the point guard spot up for grabs, who’s going to take it? Shug Dickson has PG experience, but could also be more of an off-guard. Pingeton noted that Mama Dembele could also run the guard position, as she’s been described as a defensive specialist who can create extra possessions and control the tempo of the game.
Despite it being a down year, you can see glimmers of hope for the 2020-21 season, and I can’t wait for it to get started. I can’t thank TSF enough for holding this event!