Robin Pingeton has had a busy offseason with the MU women’s basketball team.
At the helm of a program that saw three players transfer and three graduate from last year’s 24-11 squad, she has had to replace a large percentage of the roster and also find new leaders in the locker room. Not to mention coping with the loss of former director of recruiting Willie Cox, who passed away in June after a battle with cancer.
With all the turnover, it may seem logical for the Tigers to take a step back on the court. Pingeton herself called it “almost like the start of a new era” without program-defining stars such as Sophie Cunningham or Cierra Porter. The team was picked to finish ninth in the Southeastern Conference’s preseason poll, which was released Tuesday.
But don’t let Pingeton or the team hear any talk of regression.
“Somebody asked me the other day, I was speaking at a speaking engagement, and they asked me if this was a rebuilding year,” Pingeton said. “I almost took offense to that. We don’t look at it that way at all.”
One of the positives to come out of the offseason roster changes is the freshman recruiting class. Highlighted by five-star prospects Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank, the group was ranked 12th in the country by ESPN, the fourth-highest mark in the SEC.
Blackwell and Frank come from opposite ends of Missouri, but are familiar with each other from high school competition. Frank’s Strafford team from outside Springfield eliminated Blackwell’s Whitfield squad from St. Louis in two consecutive state tournaments, sparking a perceived rivalry before the two joined forces in Columbia.
“I felt like a lot of outside people was what made it into the rivalry than it kind of was,” Frank said. “But it’s been really cool to grow and get closer, and now that we’re working for the same goal, it’s been really fun to just kind of see this story develop.”
Blackwell expressed a similar sentiment to Frank, pointing out how the two have bonded in their brief time as teammates.
“Me and Hayley, we’re like sisters,” Blackwell said. “We had a rivalry in high school, and we’ve changed that … We want to win. We’re going to do that together.”
The remaining newcomers to the MU roster are Micah Linthacum, a three-star center out of Jefferson City, and three upperclassmen transfers — Shug Dickson from Tulsa, Shannon Dufficy from Utah State and Ladazhia Williams from South Carolina. Pingeton noted that she was impressed with Linthacum’s progress in practice, but said she expected each of the transfers to redshirt the season.
With Dickson, Dufficy and Williams unavailable, the Tigers will have to work with just 11 active players. Amber Smith, the team’s second-leading scorer behind Sophie Cunningham last year, is expected to carry a large load on offense.
Pingeton said she had not yet begun to plan the team’s lineup rotations yet, but dropped a hint about how Smith could work together with Frank and Blackwell.
“I think when you’re in a situation where you’ve got the two of them and Amber in the mix of playing together it’s an awfully hard guard,” Pingeton said. “You’re going to have to pick and choose how you’re going to defend that.”
MU opens the season at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 against Western Illinois at Mizzou Arena. The 13-game non-conference schedule will give way to the 16-game SEC slate Jan. 2 at Tennessee.