After a promising start, the Missouri women’s basketball team is trying to recuperate from a rocky first three weeks in Big 12 Conference play.
Missouri (10-6, 1-4 Big 12) seemed poised to reach the postseason for a school record-tying fifth straight year after posting a 9-2 record against nonconference opponents. After the quick start, the Tigers lost their first four Big 12 games and face an uphill battle to earn a spot in the WNIT or the NCAA Tournament.
Much of the Tigers’ problems began Jan. 5 when they learned that point guard LaToya Bond would miss 4-6 weeks with a broken left foot.
Combined with the distractions that surrounded the postgame fight between Kansas and Missouri players Jan. 10, the Tigers struggled to return to their early season form.
Missouri got back on track with a 76-49 win in the rematch against the Jayhawks on Sunday, but staying on track will be no easy task.
Tonight the Tigers play No. 20 Oklahoma at 7 at Hearnes Center. The game marks the first of three straight against ranked opponents, and the Tigers have lost 16 straight against ranked opponents.
A look at Missouri’s performance in the first half of the season:
Point guard: B-
It is no coincidence Missouri is 9-2 with Bond in the starting lineup and 1-4 without.
Before being sidelined, Bond was Missouri’s third-highest scorer with 12.2 points per game. She also led Missouri with 5.5 assists and 2.6 steals per game.
The loss of Bond, a 5-foot-7 sophomore, meant the loss of an athletic ballhandler who was having no problem easing into her first year as the leader of Missouri’s offense.
In Bond’s absence, freshman Blair Hardiek struggled with turnovers as the offense stalled in its first four Big 12 games. Coach Cindy Stein recently moved shooting guard Tracy Lozier to the point.
Lozier, a 5-10 senior, is doing an admirable job filling in for Bond, but the sooner Bond returns and Lozier moves back to her natural position, the better for the Tigers.
Shooting guard: B
In her second season as Missouri’s starting shooting guard, Lozier continues to act as a steady role player who can pick up the Tigers’ offense in times of need.
Lozier averages 10.3 points and 4.1 assists and can jump-start the Tigers with her 3-point shooting ability.
While Bond recovers and Lozier plays the point, Missouri will look to senior MyEsha Perkins to provide a scoring boost at this position.
Small forward: A-
It is hard to find many flaws in Unrau’s game.
Unrau leads the Big 12 with 9.3 rebounds per game and is third in the conference in scoring with 17.6 points per game. More important, when Unrau is having problems scoring she finds other ways to help her team.
There is no doubt that Unrau is Missouri’s most complete player, but the Tigers need to find more ways to create open looks for Unrau as Big 12 competition gets stiffer down the stretch.
Power forward: C+
When James is having success inside, Missouri’s offense is almost unstoppable.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, foul trouble and inconsistency have plagued James all season. If James can turn this trend around, Missouri will have more success in the coming weeks.
James’ 12.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game are second on the team, but the Tigers are never sure whether James will have a 20-point and 10-rebound performance as she did against Nebraska on Jan. 14, or a six-point, six-rebound showing as she did four days later at Colorado.
James leads the Big 12 with 2.4 blocks per game, but her coverage against Big 12 post players has been suspect.
This is Missouri’s weakest position. Junior Megan Roney started 10 of the first 11 games at center, but after a promising start, Roney’s production has fallen and so has her playing time.
Melanie Fisher has replaced Roney in the starting lineup the past five games. Although Fisher’s senior leadership is nice, Missouri needs something more tangible than her 4.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
Stein has no qualms about going deep into her bench. At least 10 players played in all but four games.
Perkins, who has been eligible for seven games, is the Tigers’ most consistent player off the bench. Aside from Perkins, Missouri needs the rest of its reserves to do more than give the starters a break.
As expected, Missouri’s offensive production dipped after the start of Big 12 play. In Missouri’s five conference games, it is averaging 15.5 fewer points than it did in its 11 nonconference games.
Nonetheless, the Tigers’ season average of 73.8 points is not too shabby. Missouri’s problem is that its offense seems to shine in spurts.
In losses against Kansas on Jan. 10 and Nebraska on Jan. 14, the Tigers rallied from double-digit deficits in the second half thanks to strong offensive performances. Missouri needed to rally because its offense went through long scoring droughts in both games.
Missouri is allowing 63.6 points per game, which is 11th in the Big 12. If that stat doesn’t explain the Tigers’ defensive woes, consider that Missouri is taking a beating against the many talented power forwards and centers in the Big 12.
Stein said her defense has a lot of room to improve, but if that improvement doesn’t come soon the Tigers’ postseason hopes will quickly fade.
Stein deserves credit for instilling a positive attitude in her team despite the adversity it faced the past three weeks.
Stein also handled the situation surrounding the postgame fight with more class than Kansas coach Marian Washington. Although Washington quickly blamed Missouri for instigating the fight, Stein didn’t point fingers and instead accepted blame for her players’ unsportsmanlike behavior immediately afterward.
After the Big 12 media and coaches picked Missouri to finish seventh in preseason polls, Missouri is in the bottom third of the conference after its rough start.
The loss of Bond was certainly a setback, but if the Tigers want to live up to or surpass their preseason expectations, they must surprise several teams near the top of the conference standings, which will be no easy task.