A primary objective for the Minnesota women’s basketball team this summer is retooling an identity that became stale during the tenure of Pam Borton.
Two elements of that refit were present in the team’s media day event at Williams Arena on Tuesday: the women’s team held their first media day event independently from the men’s team, and the players who participated showcased Minnesota’s black uniforms. The black jerseys will be utilized as the team’s alternate color while retaining the traditional maroon and white kits.
The new uniforms generated significant discussion at the first preseason press conference for new head coach Marlene Stollings, but assessing how the Gophers handle the switch from Borton to Stollings will be limited in nature until the team’s season opener on Nov. 14 against Southeastern Louisiana.
“We’ve had a couple weeks of practice. They’re extremely coach-able. The basketball IQ of our team is extremely high and that has helped us advance very quickly,” Stollings said.
Minnesota marks the first Big Ten coaching assignment for Stollings, whose coaching career could take the form of a carousel. She has traversed through three schools in the last four years, not counting her stints as an assistant. However, Stollings was eager to return to the conference she represented as an athlete. She competed at Ohio State from 1993-95, where she was a teammate of Katie Smith. Big Ten ties extend to Stollings’ staff: assistant coach Nikita Dawkins also represented Ohio State as a player and later as an assistant coach at Michigan.
Dawkins reached the NCAA tournament in all four years of her playing career at Ohio State, a ticket seniors Rachel Banham and Shae Kelley have yet to punch. Banham holds a legitimate chance of making a WNBA roster after this season, but settling for consolation tournaments instead of the NCAA has rendered her performance minuscule on a national front. The senior from Lakeville has led the Big Ten in scoring for the last two seasons and set a school record for most points in a season last year with 750. If she stays healthy, Banham is on track to surpass Lindsay Whalen’s career scoring record of 2,285 points.
An NCAA tournament appearance would certainly raise Banham’s draft value, and Stollings indicated her prominence would not diminish under a new scheme that promotes a swift tempo.
“The system really opens the floor up for her to get a lot of opportunities in the open court. We like to run a variety of quick hitters; she’s tremendous at reading that and still making the proper adjustment to get her shot off.” Stollings said.
Kelley transferred from Old Dominion, where she was the cornerstone of the entire program. She brings a sense of familiarity with Stollings not possessed by any other Gophers player, facing Stollings’ Virginia Commonwealth team twice. Joining a Gophers team that offers more options, Stollings considers Kelley a versatile acquisition.
“She can shoot the three, she’s got a good pull-up jump shot, very quick first step and outstanding open court player. She adds a lot of dimensions to what we want to do,” Stollings said.
Another option who carries bigger expectations is Amanda Zahui B. Despite some difficulties in adapting to the American style of basketball, the native of Sweden set a Big Ten record for most rebounds in a season. In addition, Zahui could break the Minnesota record for most career blocks in just her second year of competition.
“She’s a lot lighter on her feet. She’s a lot more mobile, gets up and down the floor easier,” Stollings said.
Freshman guarded Carlie Wagner, a heralded recruit from New Richland, was another featured figure on media day. Stollings had no hand in recruiting her, but was impressed with her conditioning when practices began.
“She wins most any challenge that we have in terms of a sprint or in the weight room. You typically don’t see that from newcomers,” she said.
Junior wing Kayla Hirt was also referenced in the press conference as a player poised to make a significant contribution.
Fatigue is less likely to be a concern for the 2014-15 season. In Borton’s final year, the Gophers fielded just 10 players. A combination of injuries and illnesses reduced that availability to seven by the end of the season, leaving some players without any true back-ups at their position. Minnesota has 14 players suiting up this year, which should offer a degree of comfort if an emergency arises.
The pulse surrounding the Gophers is still light, but media members who attended Tuesday’s activities exhibited increased levels of interest in the team’s fortunes. Steadfast supporters have a strong desire to see Banham and other talented athletes earn commendations they believe are long overdue. The turbulence that ended Borton’s reign coupled with the rise of the Minnesota Lynx led many fans to jettison their allegiance.
Retrieving them all will not likely be an immediate process. However, Stollings owns a monumental opportunity to awaken a dedicated women’s basketball community from hibernation. Spirits of the players at media day were encouraging, and returning students appear ready to cloak themselves under a new identity.
Minnesota will host two closed scrimmages before their season opener.