New Tigers looking to surprise

Thursday, October 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:54 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

KANSAS CITY — The Missouri women’s basketball team isn’t fretting about the loss of two star players.

A new arena, new faces, and some added versatility could serve the Tigers well.

“We’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts, and that’s exciting,” coach Cindy Stein said Wednesday at the Big 12 Conference media day. Stein is entering her seventh season as the Tigers’ coach.

In a conference with five teams ranked in national top-25 polls, Missouri will have a tough time this season. The Tigers are ranked No. 8 in the conference in the Big 12 coaches’ preseason poll.

Missouri finished tied for seventh last season in the Big 12 at 7-9 and went 17-13 overall, earning a spot in the postseason for the fifth consecutive year.

At the end of last season, one of the team’s best players, Evan Unrau, a 6-foot-1 forward, graduated, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics drafted her in the spring. Four other seniors also graduated, including Stretch James, an All-Big 12 honorable mention power forward.

“We did lose a chunk, but I actually think this is an easier year from the aspect that we’ve got a lot of talent,” Stein said.

Much of that talent comes from the team’s newcomers, including freshmen guards Kassie Drew and Crystal Howard, and sophomore guard Tiffany Brooks. Stein said Drew, the No. 4 scorer in Illinois high school basketball history, has showcased her potential in the first couple of weeks of practice.

The newcomers will need a leader to guide them. Lone returning senior, Megan Roney, a 6-foot-3 center, said she is ready for that role.

Roney said she leads by example and that example is one of a balanced player. She is one of the team’s best three-point shooters, and is also a key to Missouri’s inside game. Stein said Roney has “one of the best, prettiest right and left jump hooks I have seen in the game of basketball.”

Stein also said though she didn’t think the Tigers would be the fastest team in the conference, they might be faster than previous Tiger squads. Speed could open the door to new elements for Missouri, especially in the transition game and in executing the press on defense.

This new Tiger squad has a veil of anonymity surrounding it. Stein said she likes that no one knows what to expect from her team. It gives her the leeway to offer varying lineups from game to game.

“We could go big,” Stein said. “We’ve tinkered with a big lineup. But we could go smaller.”

Inconsistency plagued the Tigers last season. The new $75-million Paige Sports Arena could be the perfect place for the Tigers to try to right some of those wrongs.

The new facility is motivating the team.

“Our kids are so excited about the new arena,” Stein said. “They want to sleep there.”

Junior guard LaToya Bond, whom Roney called “an extension of coach Stein out on the floor,” said the Tigers want to be undefeated in their new home.

Missouri opens its season at Paige Sports Arena with an exhibition game Nov. 12 against Central Missouri State.

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