Although the Missouri women’s basketball team has reached the postseason each of the past four years, its glass seems half full.
Coach Cindy Stein led Missouri to the second round of the WNIT in March 2000, its first postseason appearance in six years. The Tigers then made their magical run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament the next year and looked like a program on the rise.
Since then, two disappointing seasons led to appearances in the WNIT and also left many expectations unfulfilled.
Seniors Evan Unrau and Tracy Lozier are the only players who remain from the Sweet 16 team, and both say the WNIT doesn’t live up to the NCAA Tournament.
“It is hard to experience the atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament and then go to the WNIT,” Unrau said. “Tracy and I were the only ones from this team there (in 2001) and it’s just the atmosphere and special excitement of the NCAA Tournament and March Madness that make us definitely want to be back there.”
Granted, Missouri had postseason success last year, advancing to the quarterfinals of the WNIT before losing to Colorado State 62-61. Stein knows that if the program wants to grow, it needs to make the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis.
“Looking at it from the standpoint of where we are as a program, it is important for us to continue to get postseason play, whether it is the NCAA or WNIT,” Stein said. “We know we are taking steps, but for us to make that next big step, I think our program needs to (consistently) make the NCAA Tournament.”
This season, Missouri looks to reach the postseason for a team-record fifth straight year. With an experienced starting lineup and a deep and talented bench, the Tigers sights are set on improving on last year’s fifth-place finish in the Big 12 Conference and returning to the NCAA Tournament.
“We are focused on finishing in the top four of the Big 12 and getting to the NCAA tournament as well as our academic goals,” Stein said. “I’m not much on saying you have to win ‘X’ amount of games because you want to win all of them, so we can’t look at any one team less than anyone else.”
Missouri (1-0) started its season in the right direction with a 77-58 win against Bradley on Sunday. The Tigers look win their fourth straight home opener today when they play Southern (La.) at 1 p.m. at Hearnes Center.
The victory against Bradley was notable because it came on the road, where Missouri was 5-11 last season, and it came against a nonconference opponent. The Tigers struggled in the early part of its schedule last year, going 6-5 against nonconference teams, including disappointing losses to Southern Methodist and Louisiana-Lafayette.
The importance of getting off to a better start this season is important if Missouri wants to achieve its goals, Unrau said.
“It’s huge and I think last year was an incredible learning experience for us,” Unrau said. “(Struggling early) set us back last year a lot in terms of getting to the NCAA Tournament.
“Luckily there are a lot of us who were there and we experienced those games and we know we can’t do that again.”
Stein said she thinks when senior guard MyEsha Perkins returns and senior center Melanie Fisher is at full strength, Missouri will be at its best with a full roster and plenty of depth.
The team lifted Perkins’ two-week suspension for a violation of team rules Saturday, but Perkins will remain academically ineligible through the end of the semester. The team expects her to return either Dec. 21 at Evansville or Dec. 30 against Iowa.
Fisher continues to recover from a back injury that limited her preseason practice time. She had two rebounds and no points in eight minutes against Bradley.
“I feel really good about when we are back at full strength with Melanie back and MyEsha back,” Stein said. “That is where I like our chances because with those two in our rotation we are very sound depth-wise, and I’d tell you we were so inconsistent with our depth last year.”