2001-02 Women's Basketball Season Outlook
Oct. 16, 2001
Before leaving campus at the end of the 2001 academic year, the returning members of the 2002 USC women's basketball team were left with one thought,
'Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there. It's about the TEAM... Together Everyone Achieves More.'
With a core of nationally recognized players returning to the court for the Women of Troy, and incoming freshmen who have been heralded among the nation's top 50 recruits, the 2002 women's basketball team was challenged by head coach Chris Gobrecht to come together as a team and simply get the job done this season.
'There is no reason that this team should not be a very good basketball team,' said Gobrecht, who enters her fifth season at USC and her 23rd year as a collegiate head coach. 'Together we identified that there was a definite lack of leadership and unity which held us back last season. We challenged each one of them to step up and meet the challenge this year - a necessity in order for this team to achieve success.'
Two years ago, in 2000, USC enjoyed its most successful year (16 wins and a WNIT berth) since Gobrecht first took the helm in 1997. The Trojans were prepared to take charge in 2001, fully equipped with one of the nation's top recruiting classes and players who fought to make it into the postseason the year before.
'Last year was very different than the year before,' said Gobrecht. 'We were a very dangerous team and people really perceived us as one of the teams to beat in conference play. There was no sneaking up on teams anymore and it put a burden on all of the players who were so new at this.'
Starting three freshmen, USC fell to 4-10 in the Pac-10 by the end of February. In an attempt to salvage a disappointing season, the team finally clicked and embarked on a four-game win streak to end the season with dominating victories over Stanford, Cal, Washington and Washington State. The wins over the Cardinal and Bears marked the first in the Bay Area since 1986. However, the Women of Troy finished with a 13-15 overall record and tied for sixth place in the Pac-10 at 8-10, just missing postseason consideration.
'Far and away the brightest spot of the whole year was that we got better and sometimes you can't get hung up on when it happens, but that it does happen,' said Gobrecht. 'We were very, very good those last few weeks and we were left with that taste in our mouths. We know we have the capability of dominating in the Pac-10.
'I still don't think we ever caught our stride defensively, but by the time the season was winding down we felt we could score every time we came down the floor. We weren't questioning ourselves in March and I guarantee we are going to be awfully tough to beat this year.'
Last season's 'leaders' turned out to be three newcomers who have now gained valuable experience in the collegiate game and are prepared to push the team to the next level. Four of USC's nine different starters in 2001 were first-year players, including then-freshmen Ebony Hoffman (Harbor City, Calif.), Aisha Hollans (Berkeley, Calif.), Jessica Cheeks (Los Angeles, Calif.) and Ryane Alexander (Copperas Cove, Texas). A freshman led in scoring and/or rebounding in 27 of USC's 28 games. Hoffman led the team in scoring (12.5 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg) and free throw percentage (75.8) at the end of the season, while Cheeks led in steals (1.8 spg) and assists (2.6 apg).
The current sophomores also were accountable for 45.8 percent of USC's scoring, 39.3 percent of its rebounding, 44.4 percent of its assists and 46.3 percent of its steals.
The Trojans were never blown out by their competition last year. On the contrary, against some of the nation's toughest teams, they showed no fear.
USC upset three of seven ranked opponents and fell just a few points shy of defeating eventual national champion Notre Dame. The Women of Troy defeated five of the six higher-finishing teams in the Pac-10 at least once, including an 88-76 win over No. 22 Washington just days before the Huskies began a run through the NCAA Tournament, eventually reaching the Elite Eight.
'We did not know what these athletes could do a year ago,' said Gobrecht, who remains the second-winningest coach in Pac-10 women's basketball history. 'When you have four young players who end up being that important to a team, there is a great learning curve to overcome. The learning curve is gone and now we are completely focused on the upcoming season.'
The 2002 squad boasts two seniors and two juniors, so there is experience. Yet, there is plenty of young energy with five experienced sophomores and two freshmen to continue to challenge the upperclassmen.
Gone are forward Tashara Carter (9.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg in 2001), a four-year starter, and part-time starting center Denise Woods (8.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg in 2001), a 1998 transfer from San Francisco.Carter was a fixture in the USC front court for four years, never having missed a game (112 total) since entering the program in 1997. She finished her career as one of 16 players to reach 1,000 career points (final total of 1,001) at USC. A do-everything player for the Women of Troy, Carter was a constant contributor in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals over the last four years.
Since transferring to USC, Woods appeared in every game as the only true center. She led the team and the Pac-10 in blocked shots (1.89 bpg) in 2001.
What remains is a group of young players who are eager to cash in on missed opportunities. Joining the nine returners are newcomers Rachel Woodward (Murrieta, Calif.) and Kim Gipson (Westchester, Calif.).
'One of the great advantages we will have this year is that we will be able to go big or go small,' said Gobrecht. 'We could put a small, aggressive transition team on the floor that will really give people fits or we could put some major size on the floor. We are going to develop ourselves as both types of teams, and with 11 solid players I would not hesitate to use any one of them depending on what the situation warrants.
'Even though there are only two new additions, these freshmen will be extremely important to us. We have some tremendous returning players with starting experience and some real solid role players currently on our team, but we need the newcomers to fill in the holes we have to plug.'
Woodward, a 6-1 forward, was rated 33rd among the nation's incoming freshmen by All-Star Girl's Report. She was the first four-time All-Riverside County first team selection at Murrieta High and was tabbed USA Today, WBCA and Nike All-America as a junior and senior after averaging nearly 23 points, 15 boards and 3.5 assists a game.
'We are anxious to see if Rachel Woodward can handle herself effectively on the perimeter at this level,' said Gobrecht. 'It would be a really big help for us if she can play the position vacated by Tashara Carter. If she can do that and handle the challenge defensively, we will be in good shape without having to give up any size at that spot.'
Unlike most freshmen who have been handling a basketball since taking their first steps, Gipson is natural talent who never played organized basketball until high school. A 6-5 center, she acquired the admiration of many in her short career. Gipson was rated the seventh-best recruit in the nation by the All-Star Girl's Report and led Westchester to the L.A. city championship game as a senior with an average of 22 points and 18 rebounds per game.
'Kim Gipson is a terrific, big-time, physical player who just needs to improve her skills and understanding of the game,' said Gobrecht. 'She is a true post player who is important for our program because we will be able to capitalize on her mobility. We want her to become a well-rounded player in the post who can shoot the perimeter shot and score on the block.'
Too many perimeter players is never enough and USC's depth at the position will keep coach Gobrecht smiling this season. The 2002 roster features six perimeter players, including three who have solid experience at the point.
'We will continue to take a hard look at the big-small possibilities on the perimeter,' said Gobrecht. 'We have great strengths at the guard position and there will be a lot of times when having three guards on the floor will make a lot of sense for us. It will all depend on our competition.
At 5-9, Cheeks entered the program as a two-guard but was moved to the one at the start of the Pac-10 season. While leading last year's team in assists (the first freshman to do so since 1996) and steals, Cheeks averaged 7.7 points per game in her first year. She can score from the outside but has never been afraid to go inside by driving to the basket.
'It took us two months before we even began experimenting with Jessica at that spot,' said Gobrecht. 'She grew into the position and came to understand the role better, which became a key reason as to why we were so good at the end of the year.'
One of the most natural players at the point is the 5-7 Alexander, who made seven starts in 2001. A hard-nosed player with great intensity and toughness, Gobrecht looks for her role to expand this season as a backup to Cheeks. Alexander saw action in 21 games last season andaveraged 1.9 points and 0.9 assists.
'Ryane is still the best true point guard in the group,' said Gobrecht. 'Her natural point guard capabilities will be very important to us at times.'
Versatility will be the name of the game as the Women of Troy have several players who will contribute both at the two and three-guard positions.
As a freshman last year, Hollans -- who goes by the nickname of 'ReeCee' -- emerged as a force in the backcourt. Despite missing the first six games of the season due to a high school back injury, the 5-9 two-guard jumped into the lineup and made an immediate impact. With only 11 starts and 21 appearances during the regular season, Hollans finished second on the team in scoring (16th in the Pac-10) with 12.0 points per game. She was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman honorable mention team.
'ReeCee Hollans is one of the most gifted players in the conference and there is no reason why you would not want her on the floor for your team,' said Gobrecht. 'Unfortunately she had a tough time making the adjustment last season after not only missing the first six games, but the preseason and all in between practices as well. She spent the entire year playing catch-up.'
Tiffany Elmore (Sacramento, Calif.), a 5-10 three-year starter who has always played at the two-guard spot, may transition to a three this season for certain games. Possessing the same type of agility and quickness as the graduated Carter, Gobrecht has pondered the idea of playing three guards and using Elmore as the third. Elmore made 19 starts in 2001 andaveraged 9.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per outing.
'Tiffany Elmore has always been an exciting and fun player to watch and coach,' said Gobrecht. 'She has earned a lot of important wins for us over the last three years and I expect big things from her this season.'
Off the bench, 5-7 junior Lauren Smith-Hams (Los Altos, Calif.) is a contributor on both defense and offense for the team. In an average of 10.0 minutes per game, she has accounted for 0.5 steals per outing, a 35.0 percent shooting effort from the floor and a near 30.0 percent clip from three-point range.
USC's style of play may rely heavily on the performances of Carmen Krause (Prescott, Ariz.), Erin Young (Dallas, Texas) and Woodward. Each possesses the capability of playing the three, as well as making great contributions at power forward.
The 6-1 Krause will be relied on not only for her athletic performance but for her leadership skills as well. With defense being the foundation of Gobrecht's coaching style, Krause remains the best example of intensity and toughness on the team. As a part-time starter (10 of 26 games played), she made 10 starts in 2001 and averaged 3.9 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.
'Carmen Krause is a great example of an athlete who plays with heart,' said Gobrecht. 'She is an outstanding defender who motivates her teammates with the same emotion she plays with.'
Young, a 5-11 junior, is a player the team looks to for maturity and her natural shooting abilities. As a small forward she averaged 43.3 percent from the field and 3.2 rebounds per game off the bench. In 2001 Young was honored with the 'Coaches Award' for her dedication and commitment to the team both on and off the court.
Newcomer Woodward is another candidate to replace Carter. Gobrecht describes her as a good passer who is able to hit the three without having to give up necessary rebounding.
'These players give us various options this season,' said Gobrecht. 'We can go small and quick with Tiffany Elmore at the three, or add more size by inserting Rachel Woodward. It will probably depend on our opponents as to whether we choose to play Rachel at 6-foot-1 or Tiffany at 5-foot-10.'
The mere mention of USC's inside game conjures up an image of potential dominance as teams continue to witness the progress of the 6-2 Hoffman.
Last year in her first season with the Women of Troy, Hoffman made 26 starts and became the first freshman to lead USC in scoring and rebounding since Lisa Leslie did so in 1991. She finished among conference leaders in six different categories, falling just 0.5 boards short of the Pac-10 rebounding title at the end of the season. Hoffman also recorded four double-doubles and contributed 20 double-digit scoring efforts throughout the season.
Despite the team's struggles, Hoffman's accomplishments did not go unnoticed as she was named to the Basketball Times National All-Freshman team and the Women's Basketball Journal Freshmen All-America second team. She also received All-Pac-10 honorable mention and Pac-10 All-Freshman team honors.
'There is no question that Ebony Hoffman had games last year that were as outstanding as any games played in this conference ever,' said Gobrecht. 'People saw only a glimpse of what she is capable of and I think her potential reaches far beyond what is already evident in her play.'
With Hoffman in the post, the Women of Troy need either newcomer Gipson or redshirt sophomore Portia Mitchell (Los Angeles, Calif.) to complete the front court lineup.
'We have the option of size with Ebony and Kim in the lineup,' said Gobrecht. 'And we wouldn't be stagnant with either of these players because they are both fast and athletic. Teams can rest assured that our front line will always be very mobile and we will use all the players in the post as effectively as possible.'
Gipson possesses the stature of a center but will not be limited to that type of role. If she earns a starting position, she will need to make necessary rebounding and defensive contributions right from the start.
Mitchell played limited minutes in her first season as an active player at USC. The 6-4 center can be an intimidating presence under the hoop. With good skills and obvious size, she has the potential of evolving into a strong court presence for the Women of Troy.
Gobrecht's scheduling philosophy is simple - to be considered among the best, you have to play the best - and the coaching staff has assembled USC's toughest schedule in recent years.USC opens the 2002 slate on the road at Knoxville, Tenn., to face the always highly-regarded Tennessee Volunteers on Nov. 18, just two days after playing St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, Pa. After a stop in the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam (which includes Florida, Texas and Wisconsin) and a couple games at home, the Trojans will take on another tough opponent of the season when they play defending national champion Notre Dame on Dec. 9 in South Bend, Ind.
'True to form, we will play another challenging schedule, and unfortunately most of the tough games will be on the road for us this year,' said Gobrecht. 'With the Pac-10 schedule starting so early this year, we will have to be well prepared by December.'
Thanks to the addition of the Pac-10 postseason tournament to be played March 1-4 in Eugene, Ore., conference competition will begin on Dec. 20 for the Women of Troy with a home series against Oregon and Oregon State.
'There will be some big adjustments that will have to be made this year,' said Gobrecht. 'Our rhythm may be thrown off a little when we start playing conference games in December, especially with the holidays just around the corner and student-athletes preparing for finals.'But the addition of the conference tournament is going to be a great change for all the teams. It would have been a fantastic vehicle for us last year. We were playing really good basketball in the month of March and had we had this opportunity, we may have had the chance to play in the NCAAs.'
It will be much of the same in the Pac-10 this year as 10 strong and solid teams continue to fight for the conference title and hope to emerge as dominant national leaders. Last season, a tri-champion emerged for the first time ever in the Pac-10 as Stanford, Washington and Arizona State battled in the final weeks without being able to clinch sole possession of the title. All three finished with a 12-6 league record.
'Our tournament champion next season may still end up with six league losses, but the NCAA needs to continue to look at the strength of the conference and the fact that it has proven to be successful in the postseason,' said Gobrecht. 'If we mature and work together as a team during the regular season, I think the Trojans will be playing at the end of March in 2002.'