17 December 2011

Tigers realistic about the challenges ahead (CDT)

via Columbia Daily Tribune

Tigers realistic about the challenges ahead

Flores, Brock are keys to fast start.

The Missouri women’s basketball team was picked to finish last
in the Big 12. With Christine Flores leading the way, the Tigers
have started the season 7-1 against modest competition.
The Missouri women’s basketball team was picked to finish last in the Big 12. With Christine Flores leading the way, the Tigers have started the season 7-1 against modest competition.

Not long ago, the Missouri women’s basketball team would have oozed with defiance at low outside expectations.

At the 2005 Big 12 Conference media day, former Coach Cindy Stein instructed an aide to provide reporters with packages of Lakota coffee after league coaches selected the Tigers 10th in their preseason rankings.

“We figured we needed to wake you all up,” Stein said.

Times have changed.

This season, even as MU (7-1) has matched its best start since 1982, second-year Coach Robin Pingeton is tempering expectations.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t pick us last,” Pingeton said this week. “Really, that’s where we’re at, and that’s the challenge ahead. We’re young, inexperienced and we graduated our best player from a year ago.”

Just don’t confuse her ties to reality to low internal expectations. Of Missouri’s hot start, she and her players repeat the company line: pleased but not surprised.

They may be the only ones. Although the Tigers’ seven victories have come over teams from outside the major conferences, they have displayed flashes of promise in a season that appeared the most daunting in program history.

Missouri, which hosts Evansville on Monday, returned only two players who averaged more than 11 minutes last season and lost its most dynamic player in years. All-conference guard RaeShara Brown, who led MU in every major statistical category, almost single-handedly guided the Tigers to five conference victories — their best season since 2007.

But an influx of new talent and the dual rise of senior forwards Christine Flores and BreAnna Brock have created a successful new dynamic. While the Tigers remain in the earliest stages of a massive rebuilding project — their most touted recruits are high school underclassmen — they have given their loyal core of supporters a compelling reason to pay attention to the present.

“Being an underdog is not ideal, but it’s OK,” Flores said. “You can go in, and maybe people don’t expect the best out of you. Then they’re like, ‘Whoa, this team can really turn this program around and do some spectacular things this year.’ It’s not as bad as everyone thinks.”

One reason is the Tigers’ balance. They are effective inside — Flores has twice been named Big 12 Player of the Week and is averaging 22.6 points, while Brock’s 15.8 points per game rank seventh in the league — and out. Led by freshman Morgan Eye and junior college transfer Liene Priede, the Big 12’s worst 3-point shooting team last year is shooting a conference-best 41.1 percent from beyond the arc — more than six percentage points ahead of second-place Kansas.

“On any given night last year, we depended on Rae a lot,” said Sydney Crafton, a junior guard from Jefferson City. “Now there’s so many people. Christine, LP, Morgan, every night it’s a different person.”

The Tigers have also reversed another Achilles’ heel: foul shooting. In a tangible testament to the increased hours Pingeton said her players put in over the summer, their 70.2 percent accuracy rate from the line is third in the Big 12. Last year, Missouri shot a league-worst 61.4 percent.

Whether the Tigers will be able to hold their own against Big 12 teams remains to be seen.

All Pingeton knows is that she won’t be bothered by the rock-bottom prospects others have forecasted for her team. In fact, she is unwilling to make any predictions herself.

“Absolutely we want to win,” she said. “I’m one of the worst losers you’ll ever meet. But I don’t think it’s fair to set this team up for that. It’s truly about the process. To have a successful program, to have a successful season, you have to stay focused on the process. ... We want to put ourselves in a situation where we don’t beat ourselves, controlling what we can control, and that’s our effort. I think night in and night out, our effort has been pretty good.

“I just don’t know that I’m willing to say that this team’s success is based on what that win-loss column is. You’ve got to take time to celebrate those little victories that don’t always show up on the scoreboard and in the stat book. We will get to the point where that will define us a little bit more clearly. But right now, that’s not where we’re at.”

Reach David Briggs at dbriggs@columbiatribune.com.

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