2002-03 Women's Basketball Season Outlook
Oct. 14, 2002
All good things come to those who wait...
So they've waited and now they're ready.
As clichï¿½s go, this one could not be more true of the USC women's basketball program, which has waited patiently to one day enjoy the full development of a group of young highly-touted and skilled athletes.
'It's true that we have had some very gifted players in this program the last two years, but they were still trying to find their way on the collegiate level and they were forced to go through the school of hard knocks,' said sixth-year head coach Chris Gobrecht. 'We're not content with what we've been able to accomplish the last two seasons and I think that this team is finally ready to accept what it takes to win every day.'
'There is not a person in this program who is satisfied with what we have been able to achieve at this point. Not a single player. Not a single coach. I think we are in a much better position this season to avoid the pitfalls that have caused us problems in the past.'
When at first you don't succeed, try and try again.
The 2001-02 season was full of ups-and-downs and glimpses of what is yet to come for the Women of Troy. With one of the most difficult road schedules in the NCAA, the 2002 team started the year playing five of its first eight games away from home. Despite the hours logged traveling, the Trojans came away with an upset victory over then-No. 12 ranked Florida and a tough two-point loss to Texas - an eventual NCAA Regional qualifier - before beginning the Pac-10 season on a four-game win streak.
USC fought through much of the conference season in a three-way tie for second place and finished in a tie for fourth (with Oregon State) with an 11-7 Pac-10 record. This marked Troy's highest conference finish since 1997 and only the second time since then that the Women of Troy posted a winning league record.
USC made its 16th all-time postseason appearance (14 in the NCAA, 2 in the WNIT), and its first since 2000, with a bid to the Women's National Invitation Tournament. With four Pac-10 teams in the WNIT, the Trojans overpowered San Francisco in the first round, 72-53, but suffered a 97-87 loss to Washington in the second round to end the 2002 season with a 16-14 overall mark.
It is important to note that 11 of the team's 14 losses last season were by 10 points or less, including five by four points or less (Texas, BYU, Washington, Arizona, Oregon State). Two of USC's losses were in overtime. The Trojans, at times, seemed so close to reaching the 20-win plateau.
To highlight the season, then-sophomore forward Ebony Hoffman (Harbor City, Calif.) and then-sophomore guard Aisha Hollans (Berkeley, Calif.) were both named to the All-Pac-10 first team - a first for the two standout players and the first, first-team selections for the Women of Troy since the 1999 season (also the first time USC has had two named to the first team since the 1994 season).
'Ebony and Aisha have been working much harder in their offseason conditioning this year,' said Gobrecht, whose 2000 recruiting class (which included Hoffman and Hollans) was ranked among the top-5 nationally. 'They are focusing on improving aspects of their game and are much more aware of how they impact their teammates. These two players have had moments of brilliance. They just need to improve on their consistency.
'The team made some progress last year, but in some ways, I am happy that we faced just enough frustration and had to endure just enough lost opportunity to really, really finally get through to our players. That awakening is going to be our salvation this year.'
Rome was not built in a day.
The upcoming 2002-03 season could be the year that Trojan fans get what they've been waiting for - a return to the NCAA Tournament. All the pieces to the puzzle have finally been filled and the young players are now experienced upperclassmen who are eager to go further.
'I think that if this team stays healthy this year, this could be a team that wins 20 games or more,' said Gobrecht, who enters her 24th season as a head coach with a 396-281 (.585) career record. 'In fact, if this team stays healthy, I am confident we will win 20 games or more. We will get our chance to impact the NCAA Tournament.'
One step at a time.
The responsibility of taking this team to the next level will lie in the hands of Hoffman and Hollans. These two All-American prep players have already established themselves in the conference ranks, both finishing last season among the Pac-10's top-10 in scoring and rebounding. Now it is time for them to make a name for themselves nationally as they prepare for an All-American caliber season.
In addition to Hoffman and Hollans, there are two keys to the upcoming season that will hopefully provide the Women of Troy with the missing links. The first is the need for an experienced point guard, which looks to be filled by incoming junior college transfer Tiffany Hicks (Lincoln, Neb.).
'During the 2002 NBA playoff, I think we all saw what an impact the play at the point guard position can have on a team,' said Gobrecht, who remains the second-winningest coach in the Pac-10 (160-92, .635). 'It may not be fair to that person and that position, but it's a reality that the point guard holds the team together.
'We have a very good basketball player in Jessica Cheeks, who has been an outstanding contribution at the point guard position and at the two-guard spot over the last two years. We're hoping that Tiffany Hicks will be to give us some added depth and another option at the point so that we can use Jessica in both positions. Tiffany will be very responsible, she will defend and she will get the ball to all the right people.'
The second key is the addition of Rometra Craig (Portola Valley, Calif.) - a 2002 junior transfer from Duke who will be eligible on Dec. 19 (one full year after her transfer date). Craig will have one-and-a-half years of remaining eligibility at USC.
'Rometra will give us some explosiveness and give us a threat on the dribble penetration,' said Gobrecht. 'December 19 is circled very big on the Women of Troy calendar. This is a player who is perfectly suited for our style of play and will have a significant impact on the team. It is a huge benefit for us.'
Rounding out the 2003 newcomers will be 5-foot-11 guard Meghan Gnekow (Santa Ynez, Calif.), who will be asked to fill some of the gaps left behind by the 2002 graduated seniors - guard Tiffany Elmore and forward Carmen Krause. Gnekow will likely play at the 2/3 guard positions. She is expected to provide the team with valuable bench play and necessary three-point shooting at those positions.
The Women of Troy's biggest loss this season will be on defense because of the experienced play Krause and Elmore provided for the past four years. The 2002 seniors combined for 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season, but their defensive presence was unmatched. Gobrecht hopes that with another year of experience the returning upperclassmen will pick up where they left off.
The final addition to this year's squad has been made in the coaching ranks. Steve Brooks, a former prep basketball coach with over 20 years of coaching experience, has joined the Women of Troy coaching staff. Brooks replaces Colleen Matsuhara who left to become head women's basketball coach at West Los Angeles Community College.
'We wanted someone who would be dedicated to the improvement of our players the way our coaches have always been and Steve fits that description perfectly,' said Gobrecht. 'The players will benefit from his experience in the game.'
If the Women of Troy can solve the dilemma at the point guard position, the team can expect to be in good shape. Once Craig joins the team in December, guards at Troy will be plentiful. The 2003 roster features five perimeter players, including three with experience at the point.
While Hicks may be given the opportunity to play at the point, junior Jessica Cheeks' (Los Angeles) past experience at that spot will not be overlooked.
'We will still rely on Jessica to play some minutes at that spot,' said Gobrecht, 'but I look forward to giving her the opportunity to go back to her more natural 2/3 positions. Playing at the point is a very difficult assignment for a player who has been playing the off-guard and wing positions all of her life. Hopefully Hicks' presence will give Jessica a chance to really show some of her talents on the outside as well.'
Cheeks, a 5-foot-9 natural two-guard, was moved to the point midway through her 2001 freshman year and held the position during the 2002 season. Last year, she led the team and ranked seventh in the Pac-10 with 3.7 assists per game and finished second on the team and third in the conference with 2.1 steals per game. Cheeks is the first player to lead the team in assists in back-to-back seasons at Troy since Nicky McCrimmon did so in 1993 and 1994. Last year, she also averaged 8.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.
Hicks will bring a steady hand to the court for the 2003 Women of Troy. With two years of playing experience at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the team will greatly benefit from Hicks' understanding of the game at the point guard position. Last season the junior averaged 11.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists while helping lead Iowa Western to a fifth-place finish at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Tournament. Hicks also provides a significant scoring threat. She shot 80.0 percent at the line, 58.0 percent from the field and 38.0 percent from three-point range in 2002.
A returning starter at the two-guard spot, junior Hollans could likely be the most dominant guard in the Pac-10 this season with some added consistency. For much of the 2002 season, she not only was among the top-3 scorers in the Pac-10, but also proved to be among the best rebounding guard in the conference. Hollans finished the season with a team-leading 17.6 scoring average (2nd in the Pac-10) and the second-best rebounding average with 6.2 boards per game (10th in the Pac-10, 2nd among Pac-10 guards).
Hollans - who goes by the nickname of 'ReeCee' - already ranks among USC's career top-10 in scoring average (15.2 ppg) and rebounding average (5.6 rpg) and is on pace to finish her career among the Trojans' top-10 leading scorers - a difficult feat to accomplish considering some of the names that hold spots No. 1 through 10 (Cheryl Miller, Cherie Nelson, Lisa Leslie, Paula McGee, Tina Thompson, Pam McGee, Cynthia Cooper, etc.).
As if Hollans and Cheeks are not enough to keep opposing coaches worried, Craig will complete USC's core of talented shooting guards who will likely share starting duties.
A unanimous prep All-American at Archbishop Mitty High in San Jose, Calif., Craig was a member of Duke's heralded recruiting class of 2002. Before transferring, the junior averaged 17.9 minutes, 6.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game with the Blue Devils.
'Craig is a very team-minded player who is going to bring some abilities to the floor that are going to be very hard to defend,' said Gobrecht. 'We are going to have some very talented players at the two and three-guard positions. Whether it's Aisha, Jessica or Rometra on the court, opponents will not get a chance to rest.'
In her first season with the Women of Troy, and as the fifth guard on the USC roster, Gnekow will be relied upon for necessary scoring off the bench. A 2002 graduate of Santa Ynez (Calif.) Union Valley High, she finished her prep career as the school's second all-time leading scorer (1,550 points), third leading rebounder (1,046 rebounds) and the school record-holder for career three-pointers (117), single season three pointers (52) and three-pointers in a single game (6).
'Meghan will be a great benefit for us,' said Gobrecht. 'She can just flat-out shoot the ball and that is something we've been missing. We've been missing the type of player who, if you leave her open, the ball is going down.'
USC's game is always greatly impacted by the play at the swing positions. Krause, the Trojans' top defender for the past four seasons, flourished last year as a great post player who could rebound and shoot the ball from the outside. Then-freshman Rachel Woodward (Murrieta, Calif.) quickly followed in her footsteps and took the game to next level.
Woodward, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, received her starting opportunity midway through the 2002 season when Elmore, who was playing at the three, became injured. With the green light (she started 19 of 30 games), she began to showcase her talents as one of the Pac-10's most versatile players. Named to the conference All-Freshman team, Woodward finished the season third on the team in scoring (11.3 ppg), assists (1.8 apg) and blocked shots (0.6 bpg), and fourth in rebounding (4.9 rpg).
'Rachel had an outstanding freshman year and I really thought that she reminded everyone that there's a lot to be said about understanding the game, making the most of your opportunities and impacting several aspects of the game,' said Gobrecht. 'She's going to be a lot farther along this year than a typical sophomore because she really stepped up and made a lot of big plays for us last year.'
Erin Young (Dallas, Texas), entering her senior year with the Women of Troy, is also a versatile swing player who has the capability of playing the three, as well as making great contributions at power forward. As Woodward's primary back-up, Young should expect ample playing time this season. Despite playing limited minutes in 2002, the 5-foot-11 forward has a 40.7 career field goal percentage and 31.7 three-point shooting percentage.
'We will need Erin's great shooting skills and defense off the bench,' said Gobrecht. 'She is a valuable player on the team not only for what she can provide on the court, but what she also provides off the court.'
'Post play is one of our big keys this year with which we hope to turn the corner,' said Gobrecht. 'We have two players with great size and agility and we need to start taking advantage of that. We feel that they are going to be ready this season to make a difference and give us a solid post presence.'
In addition to her defensive presence, Gipson is also a fast and mobile player who can run the court well.
In her first season with the Women of Troy, she saw action in all 30 games and made two starts last year. Despite only averaging 3.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, she led the team in shooting accuracy with a 52.3 percentage from the field. At the end of the season, Gipson was awarded the 'Coaches Award' (along with Woodward) for her work ethic and improvements during the season.
'I thought Kim started off great last year, then she went through a time when she began to question her abilities,' said Gobrecht. 'By the end of the year she began looking more like what we had seen in her early on. Kim is a player with some fabulous strengths and great potential who just needs to feel comfortable on the court at all times.
Mitchell played in 19 games last season and made two starts. Utilizing her greatest strength, she averaged 0.7 blocks per game and was ranked among the Pac-10's top-10 blockers for much of the year. With limited minutes, she managed to make great strides in 2002, surpassing numerous career highs, including points, rebounds, field goals and steals.
'Kim and Portia just need to come ready to play,' said Gobrecht. 'If one of them can come through for us, then it will allow Ebony to use her greatest strength - her versatility.'
Hoffman, an agile forward who has spent the last two seasons playing at the 4 and 5 spots, has already made her way into the Women of Troy record books, ranking among the top-10 players at USC in scoring average (13.7), rebounding average (8.4) and free throw percentage (75.8), and she is just five stops away from entering the top-10 in blocked shots. Hoffman averaged 14.9 points per game in 2002 and led the team with 8.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 2.4 steals per game. The junior finished second in the Pac-10 in steals, third in rebounding and blocked shots and eighth in scoring. Hoffman earned her first conference first-team selection last year and is looking for her first All-American accolades in 2003.
The 2002 Women of Troy basketball schedule was undoubtedly tough - five ranked opponents, five of the first eight games on the road, nine games against teams that advanced to the postseason, five games played in the Eastern and Atlantic Time Zones, opponents such as Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Notre Dame, etc.
But you ain't seen nothing yet.
Just when it seems it can't get any tougher, the 2003 schedule features Notre Dame (Nov. 29) at the Sports Arena and Tennessee (Dec. 14) at the Forum, road games against New Mexico (Nov. 23), Pepperdine (Dec. 4), SMU (Dec. 18), Colorado (Dec. 21) and UC Santa Barbara (Jan. 9), and a Dec. 8 match-up with defending national champion Connecticut in Hartford, Conn. Then don't forget to add a conference schedule, which includes the likes of Stanford, Arizona State and Washington.
To begin the 2003 season, USC has also been invited to compete in the Preseason Women's NIT and will host Northern Arizona in the first round on Nov. 15 at the Sports Arena. Locations for the following rounds will be decided as teams advance.
Among the 2003 opponents, there are 12 teams that competed in the postseason last year - nine in the NCAA Tournament and three in the WNIT.
'Some people just never learn and I guess that would be me,' said Gobrecht, whose schedules the last two seasons have been rated among the top-25 nationally. 'That's just the way we do it because to be considered among the best, you have to play the best.
'But I also think that we've done a much better job this year regarding our RPI rating. Last year we either went with the extremely difficult teams, or we faced teams that really offered no challenge. This year we are happy with the schedule because there is no doubt that it will challenge this team at every turn.'
The 2003 Pac-10 schedule will once again begin in December to accommodate the Pac-10 Tournament at the end of the season. The Trojans will travel to Oregon State and Oregon (Dec. 27 and 29) to open the conference slate. The second-annual State Farm Pac-10 Women's Basketball Tournament will take place on March 7-10 at the Compaq Center in San Jose, Calif.
When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.
'This is a conference that is going to be out there with a big chip on its shoulder this season,' said Gobrecht, who has led her teams to nine NCAA Tournament appearances in her career. 'There were a lot of real quality teams in the conference last year but no one took notice because we could not separate ourselves from one another.
'But I think we made a pretty emphatic statement in the WNIT when all of our teams swept through the first round and Oregon went on to win the tournament - Oregon was the sixth-place team in the conference! Many of our teams probably felt that they should have had their chance in the NCAAs.
'We just have to take it one step at a time this season and I'm sure we'll get to where we want to be. I know this team is capable of making waves in the postseason.'