March is a telling month for MU women’s basketball

Thursday, March 20, 2008 | 10:28 a.m. CDT; updated 10:04 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

I do so love this time of year. It’s Saturday, and I have been awash in basketball since Tuesday. I don’t plan to stop watching basketball until April 8, when the last seconds of the women’s championship tick away.

Now is the time for rooting for the teams that still have a chance to be champions — and to look at the teams that never had a hope of going to the tourney.

Like the Missouri women’s basketball team.

The team finished 12th in the Big 12 Conference — only because it couldn’t finish 14th. Play some nights was that bad.

On the other hand, some nights the women were very competitive. Look how they played Oklahoma. They just missed beating the Sooners the first time and took them the second. Honestly, Oklahoma has been ranked too high all season, but it was still a real accomplishment to whip any squad with Courtney and Ashley Paris.

The Missouri Tigers were very young, mostly freshmen and sophomores. As a result, their play tended to be wildly inconsistent. They could be great, and they could be awful, almost in the same breath. They often fell prey to the tricks of wilier and stronger upperclassmen. Still, they did enough things right to give fans reason to hope they’ll be better next year.

Moreover, MU has signed three recruits: Christine Flores, 6 feet 3 inches, San Antonio; Bailey Gee, 5 feet 11 inches, Andover, Kan.; and Kendra Frazier, 6 feet 5 inches, Altamont, Kan.

They look good on paper. They look tall on paper. The recruiting class is ranked 36th in the country and third in the Big 12, according to the Blue Star Report.

So given all this, we have only to count down the days until next year when Missouri gets back to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament or maybe the NCAA Tournament, right?

Perhaps. After all, the top eight Big 12 teams were invited to the Big Dance this year.

The real question is: Will Missouri ever be better than that? Will the Tigers ever move to the next level when year after year it’s a true contender for a Big 12 championship? When it can be considered among the elite basketball teams in the country.

I wonder.

True enough, coach Cindy Stein took the 2001 team to the Sweet Sixteen. That’s a big deal. She took the 2006 team to the semifinal of the Big 12 tournament — a first for Mizzou women. Her 20 wins that season were the most since 1990.

Admirable stuff.

But if you look beneath her overall winning record, she doesn’t fare well against Big 12 teams. Since the 2000-01 season, Stein’s record against the northern teams is 39-44. Against the even tougher southern schools, she’s 19-39.

Now it’s a sign of how much the basketball community respects the Big 12 that during that period, Mizzou could lose so many conference games and still be invited to three NCAA tournaments and three WNITs. But except for the 2001 NCAA Tournament and one WNIT run, Missouri was a quick out.

Is that what Missouri is meant to be? A second-tier Big 12 team? A likely first-round tournament loser?

I don’t think the athletic department is concerned. The shrinking crowds aren’t a worry. The lack of a Big 12 championship is no big deal.

The players themselves aren’t an issue. They’re good people. They go to class. They graduate. No arrests. No convictions. No sweat.

Maybe it’s unfair to demand anything more of the women’s basketball program. Maybe it’s competitive enough. Maybe it’s good enough for this university.

Besides, we can always turn on the TV this weekend and watch other teams play.

Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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