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WBB Roundtable: Let’s talk schedule and the team as a whole

After an offseason of change, Mizzou Women’s Hoops prepares for what could be a pivotal season

Mizzou Athletics

While there is a definitive and possibly large subset of the Mizzou fanbase who will argue that WBB head coach Robin Pingeton did not — large buyout be damned — deserve another year at the helm after last year’s altogether disappointing 18-14 (6-10 SEC) season**, there is another who wants to see Robin right the ship in Hayley Frank’s final year in the black & gold.

[**I was one of those people]

No matter your feelings on this situation — we are not here to change your mind — you cannot deny that Coach P is a terrific person and a great leader of student-athletes. This can be true, much like it was true for my main man Cuonzo Martin, while acknowledging that she and her program have to do better.

She’ll have to do it with a whole lot of new faces on the court. In the offseason, the Tigers lost Sara-Rose Smith (Colorado), Jayla Kelly (UCF), Lauren Hansen (Michigan), Haley Troup (graduation), and Kate Gilbert (DePaul), and added five freshmen, including two international players, and three transfers in Abby Feit (Evansville), Angelique Ngalakulondi (UMass) and De’Myla Brown (Houston/Illinois). As for the staff, Jenny Putnam moved to a different role, and Preston Beverly, who brings a wealth of experience on the EYBL circuit, among other stops, was brought in as a new assistant.

With the full schedule released on September 6, I thought it was time to gather up Rock M’s women’s hoops writers, Adeen Rao and Quentin Corpuel, and Missourian WBB writer Parker Gillam and have a little chat.

Let’s begin.

How do you compare the overall difficulty of this year’s schedule to last? Do you look at any segment of the 2023-24 schedule and think, “OH, sh&$!” like last year’s horrifying 4-game stretch against Arkansas (H), LSU (H), at South Carolina and Tennessee (H)?

Karen Steger: The non-con seems more difficult this time around, which, if you’re in postseason-or-bust mode like Missouri, is absolutely necessary to get that NET ranking up. The Tigers have got to beat some of the best from the low- to mid-majors and fare well against some high major competition like Virginia and Illinois on the road and K-State (in St. Joe) to pad the resume. That Thanksgiving week tourney in Daytona Beach is one to watch, with two 20+ game winners on the slate in OVC champ Tennessee Tech and MAC stud, Kent State. Missouri should beat them. Missouri must beat them. Seriously.

As for the SEC slate, it will always be a murderer’s row, and this year’s conference schedule is no exception. That beginning stretch of SEC play? WOOF. Hello, defending champs LSU, who will be arguably even better with the addition of Louisville star Hailey Van Lith, among others. Oh, and it’s on the road in front of their rabid fanbase. Then they face Alabama, who Missouri split last year, and then South Carolina, who returns six members of their Final 4 squad. Cool, cool, cool. There’s really no respite until maybe Vandy on 1/14, and then it’s right back to it with Georgia, who always seems to have Missouri’s number. The SEC is just stacked all the time. Now, is that as bad as that four-game stretch of death from last year? Not quite. But is it still anxiety-inducing given the precarious nature of this program? Most definitely.

Adeen Rao: It really is more of the same this season, if not worse. Starting off with LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina is an absolute death sentence for this team and we saw last year how a tough SEC slate early can really derail a team’s momentum, but that excuse will not cut it for Coach Pingeton this season as she is on the hot seat. At the end of the day if this team can get off to a 1-2 start in SEC Play, that’s a win for them but if this lineup full of veterans like Hayley Frank can’t bounce back after a tough three-game stretch, then Pingeton needs to go anyways.

Quentin Corpuel: The LSU-Alabama-South Carolina triple-whammy to open conference play was a really mean gift from the scheduling gods and goddesses. Although that’s the toughest three-game stretch the Tigers will face all season (at least on paper), the SEC is extremely deep; there aren’t any true cupcake games once conference play starts.

Heck, even the “easier” non-conference slate is sneaky difficult. Sure, Belmont, Saint Louis, Tennessee Tech, Kent State and Missouri State play in smaller conferences, but all of them won at least 20 games last year, with the Bruins and Billikens capturing conference championships. Add on a road trip to Champaign against a very good Illinois squad, I am #notexcited about the difficulty of Mizzou’s 2023-24 schedule.

Parker Gillam: Frankly, the opening stretch of the SEC schedule is a brutal introduction to the conference slate. Playing @ LSU will be humbling, and then Alabama has been a pivotal swing game for this Tiger team in year’s past. That home date with the Tide is bookended with South Carolina coming to town. A 1-2 start to SEC play appears to be a best-case scenario for Mizzou, but if the Tigers can at least tread water against LSU and SC, then they can carry some positive momentum into the season.

As you look at the non-con portion of the schedule, does anything stick out? Trap games? Going into 2024 and a January 4 SEC opening matchup with the Fightin Kim Mulkeys, predict the Tigers’ record.

Karen: Kent State in the Daytona Classic has a trap game written all over it. The MAC team has three wins over Power 5 teams the last two seasons, including Oklahoma State (21-12, NCAA team) last season and #19 UCLA & Penn State in 2021-22. I’m also a bit worried about Missouri State at home, who is coming off their 6th consecutive 20-win season, and the road game vs. a tough Illini squad in an even tougher environment (they have great attendance). I’m going to go with 11-2 following non-con, but could see it being 10-3 in my heart of hearts, as Coach P’s teams haven’t been the most consistent bunch.

Adeen: Kansas State in the non-conference is a game that really intrigues me, mainly because of how good the Wildcats did in the non-conference and how much of a reputation the Big 12 has for being a solid conference. I think a lot of people will be fooled by their 5-13 conference record last year. The Wildcats could really give the Tigers some issues with Gabby Gregory poised for another good season.

Quentin: The Daytona Classic matchups against Tennessee Tech and Kent State worry me a wee bit. As Karen mentioned, Kent State has built a reputation for punching above their weight over the past few seasons. While TTU hasn’t had the same success against nationally good basketball teams, a conference championship is a conference championship. Plus, neutral courts make for weird games. Being 11-2 heading into LSU sounds like a reasonable expectation.

Parker: The non-conference slate seems about on par with last season’s. A light beginning followed by swing games against Virginia, Kansas State and Illinois makes up the schedule, but none of those three keys games occur at Mizzou Arena. To build a quality NCAA tournament résumé, the Tigers will need to win at least two of those games. I’ll take them at 11-2 following non-conference play.

What are your thoughts on Missouri’s matchup with UVA in the inaugural SEC-ACC Challenge? Who would you like to see the Tigers face in future iterations?

Karen: You know what? Give me Notre Dame in the future. The Irish’s coach, Niele Ivey, is a St. Louis native, and I’d love to see this game played in StL for some local flavor. I could also foresee good crowds with a home game in CoMo as well, both for the Show Me State factor and because they’re a reconizable WBB brand. Missouri fans have shown, even when their own team may be near the precipice, that they love good basketball. I enjoy every chance to watch great coaching and gameplay, so hell, give me a date with Katie Meier & The U in the future as well.

As for this year’s matchup, I think UVA is pretty even matchup with the Tigers, so it makes sense why they were paired up. Virginia is likely to be favored here on their home turf, and will be a good matchup and measuring stick for Robin & Co..

Adeen: In the future I’d love to see the Tigers play Pittsburgh, mostly because I am from there. I’ll get to see Coach Gates’ squad play in my hometown this year and I’d love to see the group I cover get out there, too.

Virginia is a pretty solid matchup for the Tigers this year, both teams are on par with each other, but as Karen said Virginia probably has the advantage on their homecourt but these conference challenge games are great for getting a gauge on which teams are for real or not.

Quentin: I’ll be back home in Maryland for winter break, so maybe I’ll make the drive to Charlottesville to catch this one in-person. If you’re ever nearby, I implore you to check out UVA; the campus and city are both awesome.

As for the actual game, a win is definitely in the cards. UVA was similar to Mizzou last season in that they took care of their non-conference opponents, but struggled once conference play began. The Hoos return their three leading scorers from 2022 (Camryn Taylor, Mir McLean, Sam Brunelle), but there aren’t many returners after that. Also, McLean is likely to miss the start of the season, as she’s still recovering from a knee injury suffered in January.

To be honest, I’d love to see any one of the ACC’s top-tier teams on a future schedule (Louisville, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Duke). I’m always a proponent of playing other good teams because, well, you don’t get better if you don’t get humbled at least once in awhile.

Parker: The Virginia game will be the first true measuring stick for Pingeton’s group, so a lot will be on the line in that, especially regarding the SEC Tournament. In terms of future opponents, a matchup with the likes of Louisville, North Carolina or even Virginia Tech again would be nice to see. Pingeton needs to schedule at least one top-tier opponent on the non-conference schedule, otherwise this team will continue to be ill-prepared to take on the LSUs and South Carolinas of the world.

Any stretches that could prove fruitful in Mizzou’s quest for an NCAA berth? Swing games on the schedule?

Karen: While I predicted a 11-2 start to non-con, if the Tigers can get into SEC play with just one loss — for purposes of this exercise, I’ll make that one Illinois — in the non-con, they’ll have really shown that they are a possible tourney team and have exceeded my expectations at that point. LSU will be an L, so might as well mark that one down now, but the stretch of Bama (H) — SC (H) — Vandy (A) — UGA (H) — UK (A) — A&M (H) — Arky (H) to wrap up the first month could be key. Let’s say they really get things going with a bang and head into a Feb 4 matchup at Tennesee with a 6-2 record that includes a close-ish loss to Dawn Staley and a win over Arkansas, who the Tigers haven’t beaten in 10 matchups. Am I dreaming here? Perhaps. But that January 14-28 stretch is pivotal and chock-full of home games the Tigers will need to take advantage of.

I’d feel better about the Lady Vols matchup once the calendar hits February if it was at home, but on the road? Eh. Missouri has five road games in the latter half of the schedule, so if the Tigers can beat the Gators in the Swamp (I’m marking the other 4 road games as L’s) and manage only one home loss in that timeframe — I’ve bookmarked that honor for Coach Yo & Ole Miss — I’d come away thinking the Tigers have a good chance to making a postseason.

Adeen: Right after their opening gauntlet against LSU-Bama-South Carolina, the Tigers play Vandy-Georgia-Kentucky-Texas A&M. A lot of people like to talk about the tough games but it was the easier games that killed the Tigers last year. If they can come out of that stretch 3-1 or 4-0, it’ll be huge for their confidence the rest of the season, and Coach Pingeton needs this squad to be confident and working well together.

Quentin: If Mizzou can roll into Baton Rouge undefeated, that’d be huge, especially considering the difficulty of the conference slate. A 13-0 start would include neutral-site victories against two exceptional mid-majors and Kansas State, plus two true road wins against Virginia and Illinois. Although LSU likely ends the perfect season in this hypothetical scenario, building as big of a cushion as possible before embarking on the rigorous endeavor that is SEC play would be extremely helpful come March.

Parker: Although it is a difficult stretch, the Tigers do host Alabama and South Carolina, then travel to take on Vandy, return home to host Georgia and then ventures to Lexington from Jan. 7-21. Bama and SC at home provide great chances for Quad 1/2 upset wins, while Vandy, UGA and UK will be pivotal swing games. A 3-2 record would put this team in a pretty good spot entering February.

For swing games, in non-con, Virginia, K-State and Illinois. In conference play, Alabama (home), Georgia (home), Kentucky (road), Arkansas (twice), Auburn (home), Florida (road), Mississippi State (road). Last year, Pingeton and Co. struggled in these games. That can’t be the case again.

Give me your predicted finish in the SEC. Do you have any upsets on your Bingo card? What’s your predicted overall record?

Karen: Throughout the course of this thought exercise, I’ve gone from not believing in anything to dreaming big, as we all know what happens if things don’t go well. You know what? Gimme 9-7 in the SEC and 20-9 overall, with upsets over Alabama (H), Georgia (H), Arkansas (H), Florida (A), and Virginia (A). This is sure to be wrong. Like my colleagues said below, I’m not sure how much better Mizzou got in the offseason shooting-wise, and I’m assuming (I haven’t done much research), the big, bad SEC has just gotten bigger and badder.

Adeen: Mizzou looks to be poised to be a bubble team, and for that I am going to predict 19-10 with an 8-8 record in SEC Play, I don’t think they fare well against the top half of the SEC but I think they split games with opponents like Arkansas and Alabama en route to a solid finish. I think it will come down to the tournament at the end of the season to see whether this team goes dancing or not.

Quentin: I think Mizzou will finish somewhere around .500 overall. The SEC got better, and Mizzou...didn’t really get better? That’s not a recipe for substantial improvement. 16-13 overall, 5-11 in the SEC.

Parker: I do think that Mizzou could take down either Arkansas or Alabama at Mizzou Arena, but overall I’ll take them finishing in the 8-10 range in the SEC. This conference should only be deeper this season, and I don’t see enough roster improvements for the squad to take a major leap forward.

Does Mizzou make the postseason? Which one, WNIT or NCAA Tournament? How far do they advance?

Karen: Yes, they’ll make it. I’m going to even say, voice in my head be damned, they’ll squeak into the NCAA tourney. Much like the football team, this Tiger team has STP (Something to Prove). Whether or not they (like the football team) can prove it remains to be seen.

Adeen: I am on Karen’s side here, I believe Mizzou will squeak into the tourney and save Coach Pingeton’s job.

Quentin: The Wendy’s cup in front of me is currently half-full, so I’ll go with a glass half-full prediction of a WNT semifinal appearance.

Parker: I foresee another WNIT appearance, this time as a No. 1 seed, and advancing to the quarterfinals.

Schedule aside, what does this team need to do better? Do they have the pieces to do it?

Karen: Someone mentioned in the offseason that their initial observation is this group is tall(er), and compared last year that is definitely true. The Tigers had five players under 5’11 last year (Lo, Mama, Kate, Haley & Averi), and only have three this year (De’Myla Brown, Mama & Averi) to go with 11 over 6 feet. While Lucija Milkovic is quite statuesque at 6’6, she is likely more of a developmental prospect — we know next to nothing about her — the others could provide some reasonable comps for those who left in the offseason.

The combination of Hilke Feldrappe, Angelique (Angie), Lil’est Linthacum (Hannah), and Abby Feit should make this a — dare I say it — good rebounding bunch, something the Tigers have been in dire need of. Also, despite there being a wealth of freshmen (there are five), Feldrappe brings real international experience, and the transfers — Feit, Ngalakulondi, and Brown — are of the graduate student variety, meaning this may be a new team for them, but they’ve been around the block.

Shooting-wise, the buckets have got to come from somewhere. Last season, Hansen had a really circus year offensively, but when she was on, she was ON, and green light Lo will surely be missed. Also missing will be Rosie, who had a half dozen double-doubles last year off the bench (I’m sad about this one, y’all, and she was a j-schooler), and mom of the team, Haley Troup, now serving as a GA, who averaged 8.1ppg.

Hayley Frank is a machine, and reigning All-Freshman team honoree Ashton Judd (7.4 ppg, 46.1 FG%) will be heavily counted on. Can Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year and no. 53 recruit in the country Grace Slaughter be ready to take on a big role? She averaged 27.8 ppg in high school, after all. Angie led the A-10 in FG% (56.6) and averaged 7.7ppg in around 19mpg. This included a 21-point outburst vs. Arizona State, and a double-double vs. Duke (13/12) so she’s got experience against high major teams. Feit, who was First Team All-MVC, led the Aces in scoring (15.1ppg), minutes (34.5mpg) and FG% (43.4), while amassing 13 double-doubles and 8 games of 20+ points. You know what? After reciting all these stats, I’m feeling pretty good about this team and my predictions now and I’m ready to be hurt again.

Oh yeah, and like my colleagues all stated, the team has GOT to stop being so loosey-goosey with the ball. That’s been a very unfortunate trait of Robin Pingeton teams, and like Adeen said, does reflect coaching.

Adeen: It felt like last season all we talked about was rebounding, but this team needs to come to terms with the fact they won’t be a good rebounding team, and they need to find alternative methods to dominate the game. More efficiency shooting the basketball will be ideal, as they didn’t have that last year. Additionally, this team has to stop turning the ball over. It was a glaring problem last year, and the turnovers are a direct reflection of coaching, so if they can get rid of those woes, this team should be poised for a good season.

Quentin: Good teams that are undersized usually possess three traits: they shoot well from the outside, they take care of the ball on offense and force lots of turnovers on defense. That's the philosophy Dennis Gates has instilled on the men’s side, and it’s how plenty of Davids have taken down Goliaths in March. While the women’s squad doesn’t need to be a similar kind of go-go-go-light-the-world-on-fire team Mizzou MBB is, they desperately need to improve on those three areas.

The losses of Lauren Hansen (scoring), Haley Troup (scoring), Sara-Rose Smith (rebounding) and Kaitlyn Gilbert (defense) certainly hurt in regards to those hopeful areas of improvement. Hopefully, the prospective scoring punches that Grace Slaughter, Abby Feit and a full season of Averi Kroenke will provide will helps on the offensive end. Defensively, it’ll be on Mama Dembele to set the tone, and on the glass, the returners are going to have to punch above their weight once again, although Feit (8.9 RPG at Evansville) should help out.

Parker: More consistency on the offensive end is the key for me. Rebounding will always be a struggle due to this team’s lack of size, but they have to be able to make up for that with some hot shooting from the perimeter. There are too many high-level shot-makers on this team for them to go cold as much as they did last season. In addition, 15.3 turnovers per game cannot happen again. That comes down to improved point guard play, which Pingeton said would be a focus this offseason.

Take a stab at the team’s offensive MVP. Defensive MVP? Freshman of the Year?

Karen: Offensive MVP is a no-brainer. If it’s not Hayley Frank this season has gone firmly off the rails | Defensive MVP: Abby Feit | Freshie: Grace Slaughter

Adeen: Offensive MVP: Hayley Frank | Defensive MVP: Mama Dembele | Freshman: Grace Slaughter

Quentin: Offensive MVP: Hayley Frank I Defensive MVP: Mama Dembele I Freshman of the Year: Grace Slaughter

Parker: Offensive MVP: Hayley Frank, easy | Defensive MVP: Mama Dembele | Freshman of the Year: Grace Slaughter

Gut-check time. Is this the last season we’ll see Robin Pingeton at the helm?

Karen: Like Quentin said, if they aren’t in the NCAA Tourney, I just don’t see Des With the Best Shoes continuing on this trajectory. I know I predicted they’d make it, so if they do —YAY— but there’s a lot of unknowns here and her seat is scalding.

If it’s ultimately the end of the Robin Pingeton era, then I wish her nothing but the best. She’s a class act and has led this school to some great wins (that SC game was an all-timer) while being a great representative of the University and looking super fly on game days.

Adeen: If my predictions happen, no, but do I believe they will happen? That’s where things get tricky, I have a reputation of being a wishful thinker. If they do anything worse than 19-10 and 8-8, I think she is gone.

Quentin: If the Tigers don’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday, I think the answer is yes, and that pains me to say because Robin is a wonderful person.

Here’s the unfortunate reality of coaching at this level and beyond: the one thing that keeps a coach’s job the most secure is winning, and the fact of the matter is that there hasn’t been enough winning for a long enough time to warrant change. If that continues this coming season, it’s hard to see a world where Pingeton returns for the 2024-25 season.

Parker: Yes, after the conclusion of the SEC Tournament, we will see Robin Pingeton fired. By no means do I see her as a poor coach, but this is a business based on results, and she has not delivered despite having teams that are capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament. It will be time for a fresh start.