Freshmen lead the way: what we learned from Missouri’s exhibition play

Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank established themselves as key cogs in Missouri’s exhibition play.

Entering a new, post-Sophie Cunningham era, Missouri’s women’s basketball entered exhibition play with high hopes. It beat down on Truman state. It ran Fontbonne out of the building.

Scoring over 200 points and conceding under 100 is exciting, but these games being exhibition games is an important caveat. When the regular season begins, the Tigers will face much stiffer competition.

Still, there is important information to glean from these two games, especially for a team with as much roster turnover as the 2019-20 Tigers.

Aijha Blackwell is a star

When Aijha Blackwell stepped onto the floor for her first action as a Missouri Tiger, expectations were high. After the final buzzer sounded against Fontbonne, the ninth-ranked recruit in the nation established herself as the Tigers’ best player.

Blackwell didn’t start either of the two exhibitions. She did, however, dominate every second while she was on the floor.

Over two games, Blackwell averaged 20.5 points, 4.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, five steals and 1.5 blocks per game. She shot 15-27 (55%) from the floor, 5-11 from three (45.5%) and 6-15 from the line (40%).

“She wants to take our program to the next level,” coach Robin Pingeton said.

Offensively, Blackwell carried the load for the Tigers. Blackwell played 26 minutes per game, the most of any Tiger. She spent a majority of her minutes on the ball, leading the team in usage rate in both games.

It is easy to see why Pingeton already entrusts the 19-year-old with the keys to her offense. Blackwell’s nuclear explosiveness and elite vision make her an ideal offensive engine.

Her suffocating defense was as impactful as her offensive production. Blackwell’s athleticism shines on defense, helping her rack up blocks and steals; hounding Fontbonne ball-handlers all night, she recorded nine steals in the second game.

“She can impact this team in bigger ways than just how many points she gets or rebounds or assists she gets, and we’re going to be relying on that leadership,” Pingeton said. “...There’s a big responsibility but there’s a really cool opportunity and that’s why she’s here.”

One potential weakness to watch for with Blackwell is her outside shooting. Though she shot well from range in exhibition play, she sports a few inauspicious indicators for her shooting potential.

Her low free throw percentage, which is highly correlated to three-point shooting, and her touch around the rim — she missed a few too many easy layups — could be signs of shooting regression to come.

Still, Blackwell’s talent is blatant to anyone watching. The energy and passion she carries herself with is infectious and, despite being only 19, makes her tailor-made to lead the Missouri Tigers this season.

Hayley Frank isn’t far behind

While Blackwell stole center stage during Missouri’s exhibition play, fellow five-star recruit Hayley Frank made her presence known as a star for the Tigers.

The 26th ranked player in the nation put together an impressive two games, posting 19.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, two steals and one block per game. She was efficient from the field, shooting 16-25 (64%) overall and 4-6 (66.7%) from three.

Offensively, Frank’s size and versatility stand out. The 6-foot-1 forward boasts a sweet shooting stroke, stretching out to the three-point line and dropping in post fadeaways for her excellent touch. Frank sees openings in the defense and finds open teammates when defenses commit to her and she has the handle to push in transition.

Her defense isn’t the strongest; Frank lacks the foot speed to defend the perimeter consistently and can struggle with focus on the back end.

Along with Blackwell, the freshman seems in line to play a significant role for the Tigers. She averaged 23.5 minutes per game over the two games, the second-highest total behind Blackwell. Her usage rate dipped in against Fontbonne, but she sported the second-highest usage rate against Truman State, again trailing Blackwell.

Coach Pingeton has already entrusted Frank with a major role for Missouri. She’ll play a crucial part in the Tigers’ hunt to return to the NCAA Tournament.

Blackwell and Frank already have excellent chemistry

Despite being rivals in high school, Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank look like they’ve played together for years.

Pingeton seems to have realized this, as she tethered the two freshmen together for most of the exhibition play. Throughout the games, Blackwell played 52 minutes and Frank played 47. They shared the floor for 39 minutes and 41 seconds.

This trend makes sense. Blackwell and Frank complement each other’s weaknesses perfectly. Frank’s high-level big shooting, passing and dribbling pair well with Blackwell’s violent penetration and playmaking vision. When Frank gaffes on defense, Blackwell covers her.

The two are deadly as a pick-and-roll combo. Blackwell’s forays to the rim command defensive attention, pulling defenders away from Frank on the perimeter or rolling to the bucket.

“I’m going to put a lot on Aijha this year, and Haley,” Pingeton said. “They don’t get to be a freshman. They’re big-time elite-level kids, elite-level players.”

The freshmen should play together often, terrorizing defenses with their symbiosis on the hardwood.

Other miscellaneous notes

Pingeton hasn’t tipped off her starting lineup yet. In both exhibition games, the starting lineup was the same: seniors Jordan Roundtree, Jordan Chavis, Amber Smith and Hannah Schuchts and sophomore Haley Troup.

Both Blackwell and Frank should be in the starting five for Tuesday’s regular-season opener. They played too well not to be. Pingeton will also start her preseason All-SEC forward, Amber Smith.

That leaves two spots open. Seniors Rountree and Chavis both played well in Missouri’s exhibition games, making them ideal candidates to start. Senior forward Schuchts played well, but playing another interior player could clog up spacing.

In limited minutes, junior Nadia Green impressed. She boasts a dextrous handle nobody else on the team has, with the change of direction to create shots off of the dribble.

Along with her pull-up game, Green has the vision to make plays off of her drives. Missouri’s guard room is deep, but Green has the skill set to contribute to the team.

The Tigers enter the season with a clean bill of health. Freshman Micah Linthacum missed the first exhibition game with an injury, but she played in the second.

Missouri begins its season on Tuesday against Western Illinois.

Edited by Wilson Moore | wmoore@themaneater.com

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