I had the pleasure of representing Swish Appeal yesterday morning on the ESPN Conference Call for the 2014-15 Women's College Basketball season, hosted by Rebecca Siegel and featuring expert analysts Kara Lawson and Rebecca Lobo. There were about 15 women's basketball enthusiasts chomping at the bit to fire questions at our reps for the coming season and right off the bat, as the schedule suggests, the UConn-Stanford match up was up first. Just about every crevice was swept clean and here's some of the topics that stood out to me.
BIG MONDAY MATCH-UP
We get our first look at ESPN's Big Monday promotion with a women's hoops double header featuring the stars of last year's 5 overtime battle between Matthew Mitchell's Kentucky team and a new look Baylor squad in Waco. Matthew Mitchell will be looking to continue to wreak havoc on opponents with their pressure defense while Baylor will likely depend on it's post players a lot this year with Nina Davis looking like the newest star out of Waco. Interestingly enough, Alexis Prince, the red-shirt sophomore guard was forced into action even though she had applied for a medical red-shirt due to the number of Baylor players fouling out of that game, looks to be healthy this season and will likely be a key contributor if Baylor is to make a run this year.
UConn visits Stanford in the second match up as the Huskies set out on the road for their second game of the season after facing UC Davis on the West Coast. Stanford will look completely different this season as Tara Vanderveer has scrapped the triangle offense for the first time in 10 years and this team is going to be extremely perimeter oriented without an Ogwumike inside. While both Kara and Rebecca expect UConn to cruise, Stanford has left it's mark in the match up as both mentioned how the Cardinal have been one of few teams with the ability to throw a wrench into the machine that is Connecticut Women's Basketball, at least for a half or so.
In the last few years, we've seen a spike in the number of incoming freshman impacting the landscape in women's college basketball. Just last season, both Maryland and Notre Dame achieved Final Four runs with freshman manning the point guard position. There's not as many freshman spearheading the attack of top teams this year but there's quite a few freshman that will be household names very soon. I mentioned Ariel Atkins (Texas), Rebecca Greenwell (Duke), Alexa Middleton (Tennessee), Brianna Turner (Notre Dame) and A'ja Wilson (South Carolina) as players my eyes will be on but Kara made sure to show love to the class that Cori Close brought into Los Angeles. Add in McDonald's All-Americans Jordin Canada, Lajahna Drummer, and Recee' Caldwell to returning All Pac-12 2nd team guard Nirra Fields -- returning from a successful run with the Canadian National team in the World championships-- and an All-Defensive team honorable mention player with 5 years in the program in redshirt senior Corinne Costa.
An intriguing returnee for Close will be redshirt sophomore sniper Kari Korver. The younger cousin of ATL Hawks guard Kyle, Korver is a game-changer from three point range and hit 4 of 6 threes in an exhibition win versus Westmont College, the 2012-13 NAIA national champions. Lobo and Lawson both spoke to the improvement of incoming players coming back to a few simple factors: the first being AAU basketball. Players are able to compete with and against the best players in the country thanks to the efforts of the Amateur Athletic Union and its national tournament scene. The biggest factor, as everyone seemed to agree, is the influence of the USA Basketball program. Each of these players I mentioned has represented the USA and donned the red, white and blue on one occasion or another. This really sets a precedent for these players in terms of establishing roles and buying into a concept. Balancing that with the experience of playing in big games and players just improving overall talent, this could be a banner year for first-years around the country.
PAC-12 PARTY CRASHERS?
I wouldn't be a real Pac-12 homer if I didn't speak to the increased quality of basketball in the PAC-12. While this is a totally different team than the one that surprised everyone last season, USC is still the defending Pac-12 tournament champs and they were picked 7th in the preseason media poll. Kara quickly asserted that USC could struggle this season but quickly credited Oregon State coach Scott Rueck for the job he's done and expects this team to challenge for supremacy on the West Coast. Kara also showed love to the guard play in the state of Washington. Both Washington State and the University of Washington return All Pac-12 talent at the guard spots with veteran post players willing to do the dirty work every night. Putting four teams in the preseason poll, Stanford, Cal, UCLA and Oregon State, sends notice around the country that the Pac-12 is here to make some noise come March. Looking at the preseason All Pac-12 team, you see four seniors but there's several underclassmen that I'm sure will be looking to change that on a nightly basis.
WNBA DRAFT PROSPECTS
The 2015 Draft has been categorized as weak for quite some time now but Lobo seems to believe there's a certain pivot in Storrs that will make a perfectly serviceable player in the WNBA. Senior Kiah Stokes likely hasn't had the career she anticipated heading into this season but she'll have an opportunity to redeem herself each time the top-ranked team in the country takes the floor. Surrounded by All-America talent, Stokes will need to play solid defense and rebound her position while finishing the open looks she gets. Stokes averaged 7 blocks in two exhibition games for the Huskies while also making 11-16 shots and averaging 13 rebounds in the outings.
Battling against the likes of WNBA first-rounder Stefanie Dolson and both Morgan Tuck and Georgetown transfer Natalie Butler could prove helpful for Stokes as she looks to build her case for a job as a professional. A couple keys Lobo mentioned are that Stokes has been relatively injury-free throughout her career, albeit in limited action, but that's a major plus when you consider the beating players in the W take battling the best nightly. Also working in her favor is the fact that Stokes is still relatively raw and has a significantly higher ceiling than some other posts out there. A 2011 McDonald's All American, Stokes finished her senior season of high school averaging 25 points, 15 boards and 5 swats per game.
BENEFITS OF PLAYERS GOING TO SCHOOL EARLY
There has been quite a response by the media with some of the changes implemented in the women's game the last few years, including the change to the practice time players get with their coaching staffs. Players are regularly going off to school in the summer and getting a head-start on conditioning and skill workouts and fitting into cultures much sooner than they have ever been able before. Lawson talked about how the freshman adjustment period shrinks or is nullified in some cases by this extra time allowed by the NCAA. This benefits all parties as we rarely see players shrivel in the limelight as the season wears on.
SUSPENSIONS, INJURIES, DISMISSALS? OY VEY!
I couldn't allow the conference call to end without getting some feedback on the seemingly high number of women's basketball players affected by things other than basketball. Lawson mentioned a very valid point: at the end of the day, these are still college kids and they make mistakes. With social media running rampant and information available at the fingertips, the issues come to light much faster and much easier than ever before. We look at teams like Tennessee, who will have a couple key players missing games due to suspensions early on while teams like Ohio State has been decimated by injuries. It'll be interesting to see how this impacts the season Tennessee scheduled well enough to survive --they don't face a team ranked in the preseason poll until visiting Karen Aston's team in Austin on November 30th-- but how will this affect the way Holly Warlick coaches this team? This is arguably the most talented team she's had and while they seem to get along very well, there's only one basketball to go around and not very many minutes. It could be very interesting as they aren't the most talented team in the SEC this season and won't be able to bank on that talent late in games.
So as we prepare to embark on the 2014-15 women's college hoops season, what jumps out to you? What are you most looking forward to this season? Feel free to take over the comments or better yet, take advantage of the Swish Appeal Fan Post option and give us more details about what's got you excited to kick off this great season in college hoops!