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Mizzou WBB: The good, the not-so-good and the bad through non-conference play

At 9-4, the Robin Pingeton’s squad has put together a mixed bag of results. Here are some takeaways from their opening stretch of games.

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

Through 13 games, Mizzou women’s basketball stands at 9-4 at the end of non-conference play. The first couple of months and change have seen a mixed bag of results from Robin Pingeton’s crew; they have a quality win (Illinois), a quality loss (Virginia in OT), close losses to mid-majors (Saint Louis and Kent State), a handful of beatdowns against lesser mid-majors and a blowout loss (Kansas State).

Although MU isn’t even halfway done with their season, this seems like an apt time to step back and reflect, especially considering that Mizzou’s next game isn’t until Jan. 4 at LSU. Through non-conference play, here’s some of the good, the not-so-good, and the bad from Mizzou women’s basketball.

The Good

The scoring burden has largely been lifted off of Hayley Frank

Yes, Frank still leads the team in points and remains the top-scoring option on offense. She started the season slowly, averaging just 10 points per game in Mizzou’s first three games. However, Frank was dealing with injury as well as an upper respiratory virus, and she appeared to have shaken it off by game four, as she’s averaged 23 points per game over MU’s next five games.

Unlike last season, however, she hasn’t been required to become Atlas and carry Mizzou’s offense on her shoulders. While Lauren Hansen offloaded some of the heavy shot-creation responsibilities, it was mostly The Hayley Frank Show on offense. Whenever Mizzou desperately needed a basket, whether it was late in the shot clock or late in the game, it was fairly obvious who was going to get the ball.

Now, that isn’t nearly as much of the case. Last season, Frank scored 23.8% of the team’s points, and she and Hansen combined registered 43.8% of the team’s points. This season, however, Frank’s number has decreased to 20.5% and Frank and MU’s second-leading scorer, Ashton Judd, have combined for 38.8% of the overall scoring.

The sugar has certainly been spread a lot more in 2023-24, and it’s arguably made them more dangerous offensively than last season. They’ve already had four players score 20+ points in a game, and freshman Abbey Schreacke’s game-high of 17 isn’t too far behind. Through 13 games in 2022-23, Mizzou averaged 70.1 points per game; in that same number this season, that number’s gone up to 78.8 with a similar strength of schedule.

“On any given night, we’ve got several people that can put numbers up for us,” Pingeton said after Mizzou’s win over Indiana State on Nov. 9.

Ashton Judd has taken a scoring leap

Before the season, a Judd breakout seemed likely, especially with the way Pingeton talked about her growth over the offseason.

“I thought she had a tremendous June and July. Really put a lot of time in, she did two-a-days just about every day of the summer,” Pingeton said back in October. “It’s been fun to see the growth in her, and we’re going to need her to step up.”

And gosh, has she ever stepped up. It’s easy to see that sophomore Judd is far different than freshman Judd, both in the box score and on the court. Through 13 games, she’s doubled her points per game number from seven to 14. That included a seven-triple, 31-point outburst against Indiana State and three other 20+ point performances. Even when she hasn’t shot efficiently, she’s made up for it on the glass with four games of 10+ rebounds.

On the court, Judd’s comfortability finding her own shot has skyrocketed. A chunk of her perimeter scoring has come as a spot-up shooter, especially in transition. But she’s also become a reliable on-ball scorer, which has produced a handful of highlights like this ankle breaker against Indiana State:

When reflecting on last season, Judd spoke of her first stretch of games like it was her first week at a new school. She said it was difficult adjusting to the increase in game speed at the collegiate level. Now, it’s clear that the game has slowed down for her, and the Tigers have certainly benefited from it.

The kids are gonna be alright

All offseason, Pingeton praised the incoming freshman class. After 13 games, the group she called “off-the-charts phenomenal” has certainly lived up to that standard.

The headliner has been the most highly-touted freshman of the bunch, Grace Slaughter. She was expected to be immediately productive, and she’s been just that, averaging just over 11 points per game. It didn’t take long for Slaughter to move into a starting role, and her three-level scoring has made her future that much brighter.

Elsewhere, Schreacke has provided a stable scoring punch off the bench. The offensive quarterback of the second unit, Schreacke’s volume has only been moderate, but her efficiency has been incredible. She shot 70% from inside the arc and 48% from three on four attempts per game (50 total). The high clip from downtown would rank in the top 20 nationally if ncaa.com listed her on their site (Schreacke seems to be statistically qualified, as there are several players listed who’ve shot less than 50 three-point attempts).

Hannah Linthacum, the youngest of three Linthacum sisters, has also shown positive flashes as well. She’s started at the five spot for the last handful of games and has proven herself worthy. In their last game against Kansas City, Linthacum scored 20 points, including a pair of triples. While her three-point shot is still developing — she’s only attempted seven triples all season — she hasn’t been afraid to shoot when given the opportunity.

“[The newcomers] are not afraid to take tough shots,” Pingeton said after Mizzou’s victory over Belmont.

Finally, Hilke Feldrappe has seen an understandable uptick in playing time over the past few games. After playing double-digit minutes in just two of Mizzou’s first nine games, she’s registered four 20+ minute outings in MU’s last five games. Her development is still in its early stages, but she’s flashed solid scoring ability despite registering fewer minutes.

“Hilke had some nice minutes for us,” Pingeton said after SEMO. “There’s a learning curve for her, and we just need to get her more reps because she’s got a really, really good feel for the game.”

Mama Dembele has blossomed into a master of the little things

Dembele’s rise to Mizzou’s top facilitator and defensive mastermind isn’t at all out of nowhere. She made the SEC All-Freshman team in 2021 and has been a regular within Mizzou’s rotation the entire time she’s been in Columbia.

However, she’s taken her game to new heights this season as the starting point guard. On offense, her ability to find open teammates has reached elite status. She ranks 11th nationally in assists per game, with a large chunk of them being Dembele passing a teammate open like an elite football quarterback instead of hitting a teammate that was already open. Her speed has also allowed her to drive past most defenders and create open shots at the rim.

On defense, Dembele has made life for opposing guards absolute hell. She’s top ten nationally in both steals and steals per game. She’s had at least two steals in every game thus far, including seven in Mizzou’s last game against Kansas City. Against North Alabama on Nov. 14, Dembele became the first Tiger in the 21st century to register 10 steals in a single game.

Her interceptions are a mix of deflections in passing lanes and pickpocketing ball-handlers. Several opposing guards have looked visibly uncomfortable when being guarded by Dembele, and it’s created a plethora of extra possessions on the other end.

“I feel like I have to set the tone on defense. Everyone looks up to me, so that’s something I really take pride in,” Dembele said after Mizzou’s win over Missouri State on Dec. 6. “On offense, I don’t really care who scores. I just want to help the team.”

The not-so-good

Mizzou didn’t build a great resume cushion heading into conference play

In non-conference play, Mizzou had an excellent chance to roll into conference play relatively unscathed. While Kansas State wasn’t expected to be as good as they have been, being 11-2 heading into LSU on Jan. 4 seemed like a reasonable expectation. They were very close to achieving that – they took Virginia into overtime, while their losses to Saint Louis and Kent State had a combined point margin of 11. But they let each of those games get away from them late, and they’ll travel to Baton Rouge sitting at 9-4.

With a grueling conference schedule ahead, Mizzou had little margin for error before then, especially considering the perceived urgency to make the tournament this season. Come March, the slip-ups against the mid-majors could prove costly for the Tigers’ tournament hopes should they be anywhere near the bubble.

The turnover numbers were alarming to start (although they have improved)

Last season, one of the biggest issues that plagued Mizzou was...themselves. They ranked in the 200s in turnovers per game, and there were several contests where giveaways played a key part in Mizzou losing.

In their first four games this season, the turnover troubles persisted. They averaged 19.8 turnovers per game, a number that’d likely rank in the bottom 30 over a full season. Even worse, a lot of them were self-inflicted, whether it was a careless pass or a dribble move gone awry. Against tougher opponents in the SEC, Mizzou can’t afford very many of those.

Luckily, that number has gone down to 13.5 over the last nine games, which would rank in the top 40 nationally if it were over the whole season.

The bad

Second half meltdowns

For one, Mizzou has allowed a handful of individual quarters to snowball into avalanches. Against Virginia, the Hoos outscored the Tigers 27-13 in the third quarter. Against Kansas State, the Wildcats won the third quarter 36-12. Finally, against SLU, the Billikens won the fourth quarter 36-21.

In those three games (all losses), the quarter-long runs proved to be the difference. Mizzou played each of those teams close in almost every other quarter but stumbled enough in one quarter for it to almost nix all of their other efforts in the other three quarters.

Defensive communication

This is something that Pingeton has harped on all season long, and for understandable reasons.

While the quantitative data implies defensive issues — Mizzou’s 66.3 points per game allowed ranks in the bottom half of the nation — the eye test is worse. The Tigers have had stellar defensive outings, but even those have seen plenty of defensive mishaps. Missed rotations have been aplenty. Backdoor cuts from the opposition have worked many times. The paint has been pillaged frequently, namely by Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee, who scored all 28 of her points in the paint on 12/15 shooting.

The miscommunications reared their ugliest head against SLU, who had three 20+ scorers in the school’s highest-scoring outing against a Power 6 school (93 points) since Sports Reference’s first year of tracking data for WBB (2002-03).

“One of the things we really pride ourselves on is connectivity, and defensively, there were just too many {possessions} that we weren’t connected on the level that we needed to be,” Pingeton said after the loss.

A solution to this problem, according to Pingeton, has been to communicate less vaguely and more directly on defense. The defense has been slightly better, albeit against lesser competition. Pingeton said after Mizzou’s win over SEMO that she thought the communication on defense was “so much better”.

As Pingeton says often, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There’s still a lot of schedule left to be played, with conference play kicking off on Jan. 4 against LSU. Should the Tigers continue to score at a high rate and clean up their defensive struggles, a bounce-back into the NCAA Tournament picture is certainly possible. If the same issues persist, however, the Tigers could be without an invitation to the Big Dance for the fifth consecutive season.