COLUMBIA — Cindy Stein, the coach of Missouri's women's basketball team, couldn't help but laugh when it was suggested that last season was a "little bit of a struggle" for her team.
The Tigers were 10-21 overall and finished last in the Big 12, winning just two of their 16 conference games.
"It was a huge struggle," Stein said, correcting the speaker.
Observers have picked her team to finish in the conference's basement again this year, something Missouri hopes is more of a reflection of last season's struggles than of this season's potential.
“I think we expected it," senior Alyssa Hollins said about being picked to finish last in a preseason coaches' poll. "It wasn’t anything heartbreaking or anything. We’re not paying attention to that. We don’t intend to be 12th. Somebody has to be picked 12th, but we don’t intend to finish there and that’s what matters, not the preseason poll."
Hollins, who led the team in scoring and the conference in minutes played last year, will be surrounded by familiar faces, including the the top eight scorers and top six rebounders from last season.
“We have a chip on our shoulder, but at the same time we can’t let it bring us down," junior forward Jessra Johnson said. "We have to stay united. It just goes to show that even if no one else has your back, your team has to be there for you. So we can be picked 12th, we can be picked first, it doesn’t matter. Once the season starts, the season starts, so we have to prove the doubters wrong if you’re No. 1 or you’re No. 12.”
Five freshman, including 6-foot-5-inch center Kendra Frazier, will add much-needed height to the roster.
“We went from probably the smallest team in the Big 12 to, I would say, probably fourth-, fifth-tallest, and that’s what you want," said Stein, who said she expects several of the new recruits to receive playing time. "You’ve got to have size in the Big 12.”
According to Stein, Missouri fielded the eighth-youngest team in the country last year, which made it necessary to teach — rather than just make adjustments — during timeouts. This year, she doesn't expect that to be the case.
“We’ve tweaked little things here and there as far as what we run," she said about introducing the new players to the program. "But we’ve got a lot of kids that can help them. I think that’s the biggest thing is those guys are helping the younger ones along, teaching them what’s expected and helping them. We didn’t have a lot of that last year because everybody was so young"
Hollins said she was doing her part to keep the freshmen from becoming discouraged.
"What happens is you come from a high school where you were doing everything right to a place where you are doing everything wrong, and I went through it probably worse than they’re going through it now," she said.
Johnson said that winning a national championship is the natural goal for every teambut that the Tigers' main objective is to continue improving throughout the season and to build on what they learned last year.
"It’s one step at a time to start off strong, to end strong, to win every non-conference game, to win at home, basically to prove everybody wrong, because no one believes in us now, so we’ve got to prove something,” she said.
Last season, the Tigers were the only Big 12 team not invited to postseason play. Eight of those invitations were to the NCAA tournament, a place Missouri has its sights set on this season.
“We expect to be in every game. We expect to win a lot of games," Stein said. "The expectations are just making sure this group can stay focused on getting better day by day and game by game and not getting wrapped up in sometimes what the media wants to talk about or what other people think. We’ve got to concentrate on just us getting better.
Stein said she didn't care about low expectations or being picked to finish last in the Big 12.
"I think a successful season for us is obviously staying in the top half of the conference and going to the NCAA tournament. I think that’s a big one for us."