Earlier this year, Missouri women’s basketball coach Robin Pingeton was approached at a speaking engagement with a simple question.
“So, is this a rebuilding year?”
“I took offense to that,” Pingeton said Tuesday.
She said it put a bit of a chip on her shoulder, as the Tigers — who graduated three key players in Sophie Cunningham, Lauren Aldridge and Cierra Porter — look to return to the court with just as good of a team this season.
“It’s almost like the start of a new era and we understand that and we’ve embraced it,” Pingeton said. “We’re going to continue to raise the bar and compete for championships.”
With that comes a blend of the old and the new. Particularly, a group of returning players that’s impressing Pingeton with “their ability to really step up their game,” and a trio of freshmen that, according to Pingeton, is the Tigers’ highest-ranking recruiting class.
Pingeton said her team’s always had great “leadership by committee,” but that it also relies really heavily on its seniors and that includes this year. The Tigers four seniors this season are Hannah Schuchts, Jordan Roundtree, Jordan Chavis and Amber Smith.
Smith, who has starting experience in her first three years, has stepped into a larger spotlight since the team’s 2018-19 senior class moved on.
“(She was) just so willing to put the front of the jersey at the forefront of everything she did and she was willing to plug in the holes that we needed,” Pingeton said of Smith in past seasons.
Smith said she didn’t have many personal goals this season, but she does have one for her team: to go further than it’s ever been before.
That’ll be a tall order for the Tigers because, before they even hit their conference schedule, they’ll play a NCAA Tournament team in South Dakota and have a Power Five matchup with Nebraska. Smith said that the key to achieving her sole goal is leaning into the toughness of Missouri’s schedule.
“In the long run, we’re ready for those moments,” she said.
While the Tigers are relying on senior leadership, they’ll also have the help of some youthful talent.
“Not to put any pressure on them, but they’re pretty elite level kids and they’re going to come in and make an immediate impact for us,” Pingeton said of Missouri’s trio of freshmen.
Most notable of the group is Aijha Blackwell. The top 10 recruit was a member of the U.S. national team and averaged 24.2 points per game in her junior season at Whitfield High School. Pingeton also said Blackwell is the most explosive athlete she’s coached.
“Get out of her way, that’s all I’m going to say,” Pingeton said.
Pingeton also touted the freshman’s ability to score at every level and get things done on each end of the court.
As for the other freshmen, Pingeton said that Hayley Frank has shown she’s a scorer who’s physical and has a high basketball IQ, but is working to grow defensively. She also said Micah Lithicum of Jefferson City, Missouri, has been a “pleasant surprise,” in that she’s further along than Pingeton had figured.
The Tigers are also welcoming three transfers — seniors Shug Dickson and Shannon Dufficy and junior Ladazhia Williams. Pingeton said Tuesday there hasn’t been any update on the trio’s eligibility for this season.
Dickson, who transferred from Tulsa, averaged 14.1 points in 23 games in her 2017-18 season. Dufficy’s a 6-foot-2 forward from Australia. She transferred from Utah State, where she averaged a double-double last season. Williams transferred from South Carolina, where she appeared in 19 games as a sophomore.
“I think they’ll elevate the level of our practices,” Pingeton said.
Smith, Pingeton and Blackwell all hammered home the same thing about this year’s team — who’s been picked to finish No. 9 in the SEC this season (MU’s men’s team was picked to finish No. 13) — and what sets it apart from last year: athleticism.
“(We’re) more athletic than I’ve ever played with, Smith said.
“If we can hone in on the attention to detail and knowing each other’s strengths, I think we’ll be a phenomenal team,” she added.