COLUMBIA, Mo. — As the Missouri women's basketball team rounds into shape with the conclusion of its non-conference slate today, the Tigers are still working on establishing an identity.
That's not something usually said about Robin Pingeton's teams, which usually embrace the "blue collar" cliche as a desirable style of basketball. But the lack of a true post player Sophie Cunningham and Amber Smith can play with, rather than as, clearly took some time getting used to, which is not a knock on Hannah Schuchts or Emmanuelle Tahane.
Missouri hosts Arkansas State at 2 p.m. at Mizzou Arena hoping to find and refine that identity further before hosting Mississippi on Thursday to open Southeastern Conference play.
Redshirt senior guard Lauren Aldridge said Friday the tough non-conference schedule the team has played so far helped expose the Tigers' weaknesses to themselves. And after losing two out of three games in late November to Green Bay and Michigan, the team started to make some adjustments that saw Missouri win seven of its next eight games.
"I think it's been a good thing for us. I also think towards the end of non-con we started to get it figured out as to what's our identity going to be, what it takes to win," Aldridge said. "We've brought the 'dog' mentality to practice ever since the South Dakota game and we put together a really good 20 minutes against Illinois and a pretty good 40 minutes. So I'm excited as to where our team is headed and I think it's going to be a fun conference."
Arkansas State (5-5) is an up-tempo team that hasn't rebounded well and has held opponents to less than 60 points just once all season. The Red Wolves are a guard-oriented team in a similar fashion to Missouri (10-3) and don't rely much on their size for scoring: Kayla Williams, Lycia Peevy, Trinitee Jackson and Madison Heckert, all 6-foot-1 or taller, average a combined 16 points per game for a team that scores nearly 70 per game.
South Dakota was a smaller team that gave Missouri trouble with a disciplined and clear offensive strategy, and Peyton Martin and Akasha Westbrook are creative and dangerous players. But Arkansas State doesn't have the wins or resume of the Coyotes, and the Red Wolves lost 97-56 the day after Thanksgiving at Texas A&M, an SEC team similar in talent to Missouri.
But with Saturday's news breaking Cierra Porter would undo her medical retirement announced during the summer — the Porter family has a history of knee injuries and Cierra's first was in eighth grade, an ACL and knee cartilage injury from which the pain never really stopped — Missouri might have found an easy answer to its identity question after all.
Porter is No. 7 in program history in rebounds and is a reliable post scorer and defender for a team this year occasionally played Cunningham or Smith at the defensive 5. The Tigers' biggest issue this year has been rebounding, going from a plus-8.6 margin last season to plus-3.7 this year. Porter's return addresses both of those concerns immediately, provided she can go immediately or at least early on in SEC play.
Porter will dress and be on the bench for today's game against the Red Wolves, but it's still not clear if she'll play, or how long she has been preparing for a comeback and therefore how soon she'll have back the level of stamina college basketball requires.
Her return doesn't change the outlook for today's game, but it does for Missouri's hopes of challenging Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina as the second-best team in the conference.
The biggest question is whether or not Porter can stay healthy. Pingeton said in a press release Saturday, "After allowing her knee to calm down and get some rest with some time away, Cierra started feeling pretty good again and wanted to see if she could make one last run at it."
When she made the decision to step away, Porter said she was doing so out of consideration for her future quality of life, but the Porters are a competitive family, and it must have hurt Cierra to see her former former teammates struggling without her, worse than the pain in her knee. And this afternoon at Mizzou Arena, they'll be reunited.