How narrow is the margin between victory and defeat for the women's basketball teams in the ultra-competitive SEC? Ask Missouri coach Robin Pingeton. Her Tigers finished last season with a losing conference record at 5-9. They still reached the WNIT as six of their conference defeats came by six points or fewer.
"This offseason has really been about getting back to our core values, to our standards, to accountability, to discipline, to attention to detail," Pingeton said. "Last year was a tough year with COVID, but when you look at how close we were ... So you know it just goes back to reiterating the importance of attention to detail, of having great discipline in everything that we do."
Pingeton and company don't have to reinvent the wheel to return to contention in the most competitive conference in the country. They've made eight postseason trips in the last nine seasons, four of them to the NCAA Tournament. They made four consecutive visits to the Big Dance from 2015-16 through 2018-19, winning 22, 22, 24 and 24 games overall.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism that the Tigers can return to that form as Pingeton begins her 12th season in Columbia. Her 524 career victories overall rank her second among current SEC coaches.
"I'll be honest with you," Pingeton said during a "Build Up 2 Basketball" visit on the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum Show. "COVID probably favored more veteran teams. Some teams were affected by contact tracing more than others. I feel very thankful for the adversity that we had. I just feel like there were a lot of lessons to be learned, and it can propel you to a level that maybe you couldn't have gone to without it. I always think there are lessons in the fire, and we're stronger and better because of them."
A more experienced Missouri team starts with the return of the three leading scorers from a year ago, each of whom already has made a dent in
the program's record book. Junior guard Aijha Blackwell led the way with 14.1 points and 10.6 rebounds a game last season. She became just the fifth player in Missouri history to average a double-double, the first since 1997-98. She led the conference in defensive rebounding and finished third in overall rebounding, earning her a spot on the All-SEC second team.
Junior forward Haley Frank, last year's second-leading scorer at 12.7 points a game, has established herself as one of the better shooters in program history. Through two seasons, she holds the Mizzou career record for both 3-point percentage (.409) and free-throw percentage (.875).
Redshirt senior forward Ladazhia Williams contributed 12.4 points a game last season, and her field-goal percentage of .582 was third in school history. It's no wonder last year's team set school records for 3-point percentage (.382) and most 3-pointers made in a single game (18 against Florida).
That core of Blackwell, Frank and Williams will welcome the contributions of five newcomers as Missouri works to return to the recent glory days led by star Sophie Cunningham, the program's all-time scoring leader, who just played in the WNBA Finals with the Phoenix Mercury.
"It's been a great off-season for us," Pingeton said. "We've gotten a lot of work accomplished. We still have work to do, but I'm looking forward to the season."