Season Preview: Everything you need to know as Missouri women’s basketball begins its 2020-2021 season.

From playing through COVID to the return of its strong sophomore duo, The Maneater’s WBB beat covered all the top stories ahead of tonight’s season opener.
Missouri freshman Aijha Blackwell goes for a layup in action against Ole Miss on Feb. 23. Photo by Kirubel Mesfin

Missouri women’s basketball is back.

The Tigers open its season on Friday against North Alabama. Before that game, here’s a quick whip-around on the upcoming schedule, players to look out for, season goals, words on the offseason and preseason, team bonding and COVID-19.

Schedule

Missouri is slated to play 25 games this year: eight non-conference and 17 in Southeastern Conference competition.

Unlike in football, the schedule feels relatively normal. There is no condensed, SEC-only schedule. However, both players and coaches know the schedule can change at any time and they need to be prepared when it does.

“I think the teams that are going to have the most success are the ones that really focus on controlling what they can control and stay flexible as we go through what I think is going to be a really interesting season,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Six of their eight non-conference games will be played in Columbia, with their only two road games coming at Saint Louis and Texas Tech.

While its non-conference schedule may only last three weeks, Pingeton stressed the importance of using the time to touch up on offensive ball security, especially as the team wants to play fast.

“I think we’ve got a lot of offensive weapons, but [we have to] make sure we get those opportunities on the offensive end,” Pingeton said.

On defense, those first eight games allow the Tigers to work through the difficulties of playing in front of significantly fewer fans than they are used to.

“I think it’s just the communication, the effort plays,” Pingeton said. “We’ve still got a lot of kids that are getting used to each other and their tendencies. Sometimes that takes a little bit longer.”

Things only get tougher for the Tigers when the conference schedule begins on New Year’s Eve.

Missouri will play five teams who were ranked in the top-15 this preseason, with only two of those games at home. The Tigers will play both Arkansas and Texas A&M home and away, while it plays every other team only once.

Players to watch

Aijha Blackwell

So much of how this Missouri team wants to play begins with floor general Aijha Blackwell.

Blackwell, a sophomore, proved to be the biggest bright spot during a season in which the Tigers struggled. The guard averaged 15 points and 7.3 rebounds last season and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team.

“She’s just a strong and aggressive player,” her teammate and fellow sophomore Hayley Frank said. “People have to help on her, or she’s going to have easy buckets at the basket every time.”

Despite being listed as a guard, Blackwell led Missouri in rebounds last season and finished with six double-doubles in her final seven games. On Tuesday, coaches around the conference named Blackwell to the preseason All-SEC Second team.

Blackwell arrived in Columbia as the state’s top-ranked prospect, and she showed why game after game. Pingeton said the team’s top aspiration is to win a championship, and for that to happen, it has to start up top with the true sophomore.

Hayley Frank

Then-freshman Hayley Frank made an immediate impact for last year’s Missouri team. She set the school’s freshman record by making at least one three-pointer in her first 12 college games.

Like Blackwell, coaches named Frank to the SEC All-Freshman Team after she averaged 11.8 points and four rebounds per game last season. The freshman standout also ranked 14th nationally and led the SEC in free throw percentage at 87.8%.

With their two contrasting styles, Frank and Blackwell complement each other’s strengths. Frank focuses on three-pointers and easily spots holes in defenses when they follow her to the three-point line. Blackwell, on the other hand, drives to the rim and is a playmaker in the paint. Their different techniques keep defenses off-balance and allow more scoring opportunities for each of them.

“One of my strengths is three-point shooting and being able to stretch the floor, so I think [our] two styles complement each other really well,” Frank said. “So when she is able to drive and create, then it creates open looks for me.”

Frank, who came to Columbia as the second-ranked prospect in the state — behind only Blackwell — has proven her shooting consistency.

With four proven Missouri starters in 2019, Frank made just eight starts during her freshman campaign. She scored many of her points off the bench last season. After the loss of the four seniors, it is clear that Frank will face an expanded role with the Tigers.

Pingeton emphasized that her starting five had not yet been solidified, but implied she had a strong impression of who those five starters could be. It would not be astonishing to many if Frank was one of those five starters and strengthened her impact with the team.

Mama Dembele

Hailing from Manlleu, Spain, Dembele became the third international player on Missouri’s roster this season, the other two being freshman Sara-Rose Smith and redshirt senior Shannon Dufficy, who are both from Australia.

Dembele was named best student-athlete for the 2019-20 season at her high school, INS Joaquim Blume. But the 5’6” guard has not just played high school prep ball. She played for Spain’s national team in the 2018 U16 European Championships and impressed with a consistent 5.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. She also played for the U18 team the next year in the European Championships and helped lead Spain to a bronze medal finish.

"My national team experience really helped my game," Dembele said. "Playing against the USA team really helped me see how the game is played and how they talk in the United States. Playing in those tournaments helped me learn the different rules that are played in America."

Coach Pingeton gave Dembele high praise.

“She’s gonna be awfully dynamic for us,” Pingeton said. “She can guard 90 feet from the basket, create some extra possessions for us, [she] really creates the tempo, [has] great court awareness and [is] just an incredible distributor. I think people are gonna really enjoy watching her play.”

Season Goals

After an underwhelming 2019 season in which Missouri went 9-22 overall and 5-11 in SEC matchups, the Tigers hope to change the narrative of their post-Sophie Cunningham team.

In 2017, Missouri achieved its highest ranking since 1984, coming in at No. 11 in the Associated Press Top-25 behind the stellar play of Cunningham. After its fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018, Missouri’s 2019 season proved to be a rebuilding year.

For their upcoming season, the Tigers lost four of their five starters and now must rely on several newcomers and established sophomores to decide how their 2020 season will play out.

To put it simply, Pingeton wants to win a championship.

Achieving that goal, however, will be a much larger feat. Pingeton’s first step towards her true ambition is one that takes place off the court. This concept of self-betterment has been a staple of the offseason and an idea Pingeton hopes to see carry over into the upcoming months.

“Truly, the focus is going to be one day at a time, being the best version of ourselves that we can be, and being great for each other,” Pingeton said.

Team Chemistry

Over the offseason, the team had Zoom meetings to discuss culture and “family-togetherness.” Pingeton preached of culture and “family-togetherness.” She emphasized that off-court relationships and team building translates to success on the court.

“We really just keyed in on how we could be closer and better family and just things that would translate when we did get to come together,” Frank said.

Pingeton believes that the hardships will lead to a successful team atmosphere.

“I’m thankful for what we went through,” Pingeton said. “I think diamonds are formed in the fires.”

Whether the surge in team chemistry will heavily impact the Tigers’ on-court production is still up in the air, but Pingeton is grateful for the chance to have deep conversations that go beyond basketball.

“We had a chance to really learn a lot about ourselves and each other and peel back the layers,” Pingeton said. “I think we’ll be better because of it.”

Embracing Change

2020 marked an offseason of significant change for Missouri.

The Tigers lost four of their starters from a season ago. Hannah Schuchts, Jordan Chavis, Jordan Roundtree and Amber Smith graduated last season.

However, the team will welcome a large round of newcomers this season, many of whom Pingeton believes can contribute immediately.

Sara-Rose Smith, Dembele and Jayla Kelly joined the team as true freshmen, while Lauren Hansen transferred from Auburn and is immediately eligible to play. LaDazhia Williams, Shannon Dufficy and Shug Dickson sat out last season after they transferred to Missouri, but will now be able to contribute.

“I’m definitely keen to get on the court,” Dufficy said. “It feels so long since I’ve actually played. But I also think that the redshirt year was very beneficial to me. Coming from the Mountain West, that’s a strong conference, but here there are a lot bigger bodies, a lot faster pace and I feel like that year really prepared me for this year.”

A Preseason Like No Other

Before preseason camp could even begin, Missouri went through a 14-day quarantine to ensure players and coaches were healthy and could be in contact with one another.

“[The quarantine] was a little bit challenging but the girls have bounced back really well,” Pingeton said. “Practices have been extremely competitive.”

Team bonding off the court became more difficult to accomplish, but Frank said the Tigers made the most of the situation.

“We have to be careful with contract tracing and stuff, but we’ve gotten together and just done dinners together,” Frank said. “You know, just having conversations about our backgrounds and our families. And even when we were still in quarantine we were allowed to do conditioning together so we’d get up early in the morning, it’d be dark out and we’d have to go to the practice football field. So I think even that brings you closer in a way.”

Practices themselves have looked different than in previous seasons. Due to required social distancing, the typical pre and post-practice huddles aren’t the same.

“We just make sure we maintain our six feet apart,” Pingeton said. “Really, the big deal is contact tracing. It’s so important that we’re really being mindful of things like that.”

The distancing requirements have not been easy for Pingeton, either.

“I’m such a touchy-feely, hug, embrace, high-five coach,” Pingeton said. “You just want to celebrate with your girls and get excited with them.”

Though the season is off to a clean start, Pingeton acknowledged there’s still a long way to go.

“I’ve never been through a season like [this] so far and I’m sure we’ve still got many surprises ahead of us over the next three or four months,” Pingeton said.

SEC Basketball & COVID-19

The Southeastern Conference will use KINEXON SafeZone technology to assist in contact tracing in both men’s and women’s basketball this season. This is the same technology SEC Football is currently using.

The technology is a lightweight, wearable device called a SafeTag, about the same size as a watch face. It tracks the proximity between players and the length of time spent in close proximity. Should a positive test or a player with symptoms come up, the data can be accessed to perform contact tracing and get at-risk players isolated.

Additionally, the Tigers will have to adjust to a reduced number of fans. Mizzou Arena will operate at 20% capacity this season for both men’s and women’s home games.

“It’s gonna be a lot different,” Pingeton said. “I just got off a Zoom call with a lot of our fans and so it’s good to see so many faces and it’s tough. We’ve been so blessed with an incredible community support, so I know it’s going to be challenging for them as well. I don’t think it’s anything you can quite prepare for.”

Pingeton said it’s a blessing to even have a season at all.

“I think it’s a season of just really being grateful that we have the opportunity to lace them up and do what we love to do,” Pingeton said. “We’ve just got to control what we can control and make the most of every opportunity that we have to take the court.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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