COLUMBIA, Mo. -- For all the progress the Missouri women's basketball has made the last few years, there's one glaring empty box on the program's checklist. The Tigers are winless in the Southeastern Conference tournament. Since joining the SEC in 2012, Robin Pingeton's program has won more games in the NCAA Tournament (two) than the conference tournament, a reflection of both the SEC's quality and depth and the Tigers' fickle performance in the league bracket the last five years.
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As the No. 3 overall seed last year, Mizzou earned a double bye but dropped its quarterfinal game to No. 6 seed Texas A&M.
Why should this year be any different?
Practice at Bridgestone Arena in the books— Mizzou Basketball (@MizzouWBB) March 1, 2018
Ready for tomorrow pic.twitter.com/xgZ2DrLmqi
For one, after a better regular season in an improved conference -- seven of the SEC's 14 teams are nationally ranked -- the No. 14 Tigers (23-6) head to Nashville, Tenn., as the No. 6 seed but face a more favorable matchup Thursday night against No. 14 Ole Miss (12-18). The Rebels eliminated Florida 48-43 on Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena. The Tigers breezed through their regular-season matchup against Ole Miss on Jan. 18, winning 67-48. Tipoff is 8:30 p.m. on SEC Network.
Leading up to the postseason, Mizzou was heading toward a top-four seed and the tournament's double bye but slipped in the standings with Sunday's loss at Texas A&M.
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"We've just got to figure out a way to get that first win and see where it can go from there," Pingeton said. "But for us, if you want to say what the conversation is in the locker room ... it's the thought of being able to host. That's what everyone is pulling for. But they also understand a lot of things are out of our control."
Host, as in host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Unlike the men's tournament that's played on neutral courts around the country, the opening two rounds of the women's tournament are played on campus sites of the bracket's top overall 16 seeds. Starting in January, the NCAA releases those top 16 seeds each week and in the latest edition, Mizzou was No. 11 overall, the third overall seed in the Spokane Regional, which means the Tigers would host the first two rounds of play at Mizzou Arena. The last two seasons, MU won first-round NCAA games at Texas and Florida State, respectively, before losing to the host teams in the second round.
Should they earn the right to host, the Tigers figure to attract big crowds at Mizzou Arena. MU ranked fifth in home attendance across the SEC this season, averaging 4,366 per game, a 34.4-percent increase from last year, and set a home attendance record against Tennessee two weeks ago.
More than ever in Pingeton's eight years at MU, the Tigers are positioned to have that postseason homecourt advantage, provided Ole Miss doesn't pull off the upset Thursday and sink Mizzou in the seedings.
But this year, with better depth and a retooled rotation, Pingeton has the ingredients to make an extensive run through March.
The Tigers have an established superstar in junior guard Sophie Cunningham, a two-time first-team All-SEC selection and viable All-American candidate who can carry Pingeton's team in the big moments. One of the league's most prolific and efficient scorers, Cunningham ranks among the league's elite shooters in every category while averaging 18.6 points per night. She's been even better in Mizzou's biggest games, averaging 22.6 points in five games against ranked SEC opponents.
Jordan Frericks is back and playing the best basketball of her career. If the SEC had a comeback player of the year award, Frericks would be the leading candidate after missing all of last season with a torn knee ligament. It took a few months for Frericks to assert herself in the paint, but the three-time second-team All-SEC forward is averaging 15.9 points in MU's last seven games.
"She's at the peak of her game right now," Pingeton said. "She's playing so strong, so explosive, so confident. She's just soaking up every moment with this team and being able to put on that jersey."
Frericks' return allowed Pingeton to tinker with her lineup, moving junior Cierra Porter from center to the "stretch four" position, a power forward with shooting range that plays inside and outside. Sophomore Amber Smith played that position last year but has since moved to her natural shooting guard position and given the Tigers another perimeter scoring threat. Cunningham still touches the ball significantly, but the arrival of junior transfer Lauren Aldridge at point guard gives Pingeton a primary ball-handler to initiate the offense. Mizzou enters the SEC tournament No. 1 in the league in assists (16.1 per game) and No. 2 in 3-point shooting (38.4 percent) and No. 3 in field-goal percentage (46.6).
"This is the best team I've ever been part of," Cunningham said. "It's really exciting. We're all very unselfish. We just want to get the win. We don't care who scores. We just have take care of business every single night. This team is focused, has a lot of fun and we know what we want to get done -- and that's to host (the NCAA Tournament)."
This article is written by Dave Matter from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.