COLUMBIA — The Missouri women’s basketball team has been eagerly awaiting this night for weeks, but there are still a lot of unknowns entering Friday night's season-opener.
As of Thursday night, coach Cindy Stein was still uncertain which players would compose her starting lineup when the Tigers face Southwest Baptist at 6:30 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.
“I think we have an idea of who we want to start,” Stein said. “But I think that within our top eight kids we can rotate without any drop off, which is good.”
Stein says she is convinced this year’s team has improved in three areas since last season: experience, height and depth.
The latter two go together. Stein added four true freshmen to her roster this past offseason, three of which are 6 feet 2 inches or taller. BrAnna Brock, Christine Flores, Kendra Frazier and Bailey Gee round out a recruiting class that Stein expects to provide her with a much deeper bench.
Stein said lack of experience was the biggest weakness of last year’s team. This season, the Tigers will feature a more balanced combination of veterans and rookies. Flores, Frazier and Gee figure to see the most immediate playing time. Stein says Flores, a 6foot-3-inch forward from San Antonio, Texas has been particularly impressive.
“She’s so smart,” Stein said. “That’s the thing you guys are going to find by watching her, is she’s got great hands, and for someone that’s 6'3" she moves extremely well. She just reads things really well, and I don’t even think she knows what she’s reading yet, but she’s making the right plays. She’s got a very nice touch around the basket. She’s a good shooter, so she can shoot the three, and she can go inside, and we just need that depth inside to help Shak (sophomore forward Shakara Jones) along.”
Jones might benefit the most from the influx of talented, and tall, freshmen. Kendra Frazier, a 6-foot-5-inch center from Altamont, Kan., has also gone against Jones frequently during practice and adds a shot-blocking presence that Stein said wasn’t there last season. When asked if practice has been any easier for her as a sophomore, Jones couldn’t help but chuckle.
“No,” Jones said with a laugh. “It’s definitely been a lot harder. We’ve been going up and down a lot. It’s been very intense and fast-paced.”
She went on to praise Flores and Frazier for the additional competition they’ve brought to the table.
“They’ve been excellent. Both of them have big bodies, and even when they go against each other, they go at it,” Jones said. “Christine’s strength is her body, she uses it well. And Kendra has this sweet turnaround jumper.”
Flores and Frazier might make the biggest overall impact for the Tigers because they provide a challenge for the team’s top returning post player every day in practice. But Gee, a 5-foot-11-inch guard from Andover, Kan., could be the rookie that is in position to earn the most immediate playing time. Gee has been in the running for the starting point guard position along with redshirt freshman Bekah Mills and junior Toy Richbow. Although Stein says the competition is down to Mills and Richbow, she still expects Gee to receive substantial playing time.
“She’s (Gee) just real competitive,” Stein said. “She’s playing a little tentative right now. She’s usually very aggressive, and I think that will come when she gets a little more comfortable with the system. She battles on the boards, she’s strong, she’s going to scrap and work hard. She can hit the good shot, and she can post-up, so she’s very versatile.”
Gee admits the adjustment to the college game hasn’t been an easy one, but she also said the improved competition is an opportunity to improve her skills and makes her want to work even harder in practice. She added that the upperclassmen on the team have gone out of their way to help make it a smooth transition.
“Whenever I need anything they’re always there for me,” Gee said. “If I have a down day they’re calling me, texting me, always trying to help me just get better in general.”