KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly, a 13-year veteran of the school, to Texas’ Gail Goestenkers, a Big 12 rookie, the coaches at the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Media Day praised the conference’s depth from top to bottom. Unfortunately for Missouri fans, those coaches – each and every one of them – picked the Tigers to finish last in the preseason poll.
But head coach Cindy Stein and her players disregarded the rankings as quickly as they appeared.
“I’ve never believed in these preseason polls,” Stein said. “I don’t think you should ever short change any teams because I think that every night is a tough night (in this conference).”
While the Tigers would like to surprise some people this year, it will be difficult to replace the eight departed lettermen, including four starters, from last year’s squad. The only returning starter is junior guard Alyssa Hollins, who averaged 11.5 points per game and needs to grab hold of a serious leadership role this season. In fact, Hollins, junior forward K-Kay Pickens, and senior Nicole Wilson are the only upperclassmen on a team loaded with youngsters.
However, those youngsters make up a dynamic recruiting class that should keep Missouri in contention for years to come. RaeShara Brown and Shakara “Shaq” Jones lead a group of five first-year players that have the ability to make Stein forget about the preseason ranking, but there is a lot of work to be done.
“Our team is really excited about this year, regardless of what everybody thinks we’re going to do,” Stein said. “This is a great young team that is not going to use youth as an excuse.”
Stein and her staff spent much of the first few practices teaching rather than coaching. Instead of running through sets and inching through the playbook, the coaches have been developing trust and a level of respect with their newplayers.
“They are very energetic and they want to do things the right way,” Stein said. “We’re getting a great opportunity to kind of go back to the really sound, basic fundamentals.”
And if the freshmen get down, Hollins has been there to pick them up. Going from the youngest starter on last year’s team to the grizzled veteran of the 2007 squad, she embraced her new role as team leader.
“There’s definitely a lot more teaching going on,” Hollins said. “Sometimes, it’s easier to hear it from a player than a coach. Once they find their niche, they’ll be fine.”
Another preseason problem for the Tigers has been a lack of height in the low post. Only five players clear six feet tall, and Stein admitted that could pose a problem when they face the likes of Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris, the 6-foot-5 star named the AP National Player of the Year last season. Stein said that team defense needs to be something special, but Hollins was more specific.
“We’ll play some run-and-gun and press this year,” Hollins said. “We can eliminate the height issue.”
The team as a whole will play a more aggressive style in the 2007-08 season, using smaller and quicker players to exploit the slow pace of opponents’ half-court offenses.
“We’re going to be fiesty this year,” Hollins said. “We want to be that team everyone hates to play.”
As for her own game, Hollins wants to get to the rim more often and be more assertive on and off the court. She even found a silver lining in the preseason poll.
“I think it’s a blessing in disguise,” she said. “People will sleep on us. We know the little things are going to be what pushes us over the top.”
If the team can manage to evade the pitfalls of inexperience at the beginning of the season, look for the Tigers to captapult from the basement of the Big 12 rankings.
“I think our future is extremely bright,” Stein said. “We feel (the first-year players) are really going to ignite us into some great things.”