Michelle Smith Feature: Storylines from Pac-12 Women's Basketball Media Day
Kamie Ethridge was clearly impressed with her first experience as a member of the Pac-12 on Wednesday at the annual Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Media Day Event.
“Coming in new, being around this kind of setup, this kind of media attention, the validity and the value that you put into women’s basketball is something I am certainly thrilled to be a part of,” said Ethridge, the only new head coach in the Pac-12 ranks this season. “This is not what most people who coach women’s basketball get to experience.”
Ethridge comes to Washington State after a successful four-year stint at Northern Colorado, where she led the program to a record number of wins last season and its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament last spring. She is inheriting an experienced, but not terribly deep team that has endured significant injuries over the past two seasons and finished 3-14 in conference play in 2018. She has seven returning players.
Among her returners is Borislava Hristova, the redshirt junior from Bulgaria, who has been among the conference’s most consistent scoring threats. Hristova averaged a team-leading 17.8 points a game last season.
Junior guard Chanelle Molina, the team’s assist leader, also returned, surrounded by plenty of familiar faces, with her two sisters Celena and Cherilyn, playing on the Cougars’ team this season.
“We played together in high school, so it’s kind of a natural feeling to play together in college,” Chanelle said. “We are competitive, so I’ll get on my sisters when I see they are not doing their jobs.”
Hristova said her expectations for this season are very high, even with a coaching change.
“With the new coaching staff we have, it gives us freedom offensively,” Hristova said. “It’s like a free-flowing offense. We’re just able to create for yourself, create for your teammates…it’s just a great opportunity for us, and I think it’s going to help us grow as players and people.”
Ethridge knows the degree of difficulty is high as she begins her career in one of the country’s toughest conferences. And she acknowledged that she doesn’t have “all the pieces she wants for her program yet. But she said she wants to “lay a foundation” this first season.
“I think I’m walking into a pretty special situation,” Ethridge said. “I think the seven that stayed and stuck around for this program and committed to this program and wanted to stay and want it to become success, that’s unique. I think they represent a lot of the things that I want to be about and I think they give us a great foundation. They are committed players…they want to be coached.”
Ducks poised for big things
Final Four. It is the outside expectation for an Oregon Ducks team that returns four starters and two of the country’s best players – including a national player of the year front-runner in guard Sabrina Ionescu.
Two straight trips to the NCAA Elite Eight makes folks think big things are in the offing in Eugene. And the Pac-12 coaches did little to turn down the heat by picking Oregon to win the Pac-12 title in 2019.
Coach Kelly Graves said nothing has changed for him, not since Ionescu and post Ruthy Hebard arrived on campus.
“We’ve had high expectations ever since these two got here and they’ve lived up to that,” Graves said. “I think last year, our exit from the NCAA Tournament got us even hungrier for success this year and what I’ve seen is great focus and intensity and nothing but positive things. I think they’re hungry and I can see a real confidence in each and every one of them.”
Both Ionescu and Hebard said the Ducks are “dialed in” as the season approaches, understanding how hard they have to work to get where they want to go.
“Everyone knows how close we were to making that jump last year and getting to a Final Four, and I think everyone wants it more than ever,” Ionescu said. “So I think everyone has been practicing like we're going to get there, and it's been so fun to be a part of.”
Oregon lost four players from last year’s team to transfers, but gained Erin Boley, who was a starter at Notre Dame, sat out last season and will now be available to play.
“She's used to playing at a high level. When she was at Notre Dame she actually started for them and was a key player for them, so she comes in with experience,” Graves said “She also comes in with a year under her belt having worked out and practiced with us last year. She understands what we want and the kind of game that we play.”
Ionescu had a busy summer. She played with USA basketball and won a gold medal in the 3-on-3 World Championships, and then spent time with the senior national team as they prepared for the FIBA World Cup Tournament.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Ionescu said of her time with Team USA. “I wasn't sure what to expect going in, but I was just eager to learn from everyone that was there, players that had walked in my shoes and had played in college already and now were playing professionally. It was a blessing to be able to learn from them, especially in the guard position, to just be able to learn how they see the court, how they play defense differently than we do in college. The intensity was a lot different, and they really helped me get better in a lot of ways.”
Graves said he thinks his team “deserved” to be voted the preseason Pac-12 favorite. But now it’s time to prove people right.
“We're not going to shy away from that. But at the same time, it doesn't mean anything,” Graves said “When we play the Washington schools opening weekend (of Pac-12 play), we're all going to be 0-0 and competing for the same prize. And I think our players are smart enough to know that and realize that.
“But I really see a focus in this group that I haven't seen in my time there. I'm really excited to see how we can come together and what we can accomplish. I think it can be really great things.”
Wildcats seeking a new standard
Adia Barnes brought one of the best recruiting classes in the nation – including her program’s first McDonald’s All-American – to Tucson in her second season as the University of Arizona head coach. Her program will benefit from the transfer of former Washington standout Aarion McDonald, and the Wildcats are still predicted to finish 10th in the Pac-12 in the annual coaches’ poll.
Does that mean that good things take time? Or that the Wildcats’ time has come and every one just needs to catch up?
“The recruiting class, all the rankings, we don’t pay attention to a lot of that,” Barnes said Wednesday. “My main thing was to recruit players that fit what we do and just fit everything we’re about…
“But all of that doesn’t mean anything until they come play and have to produce on the floor.”
Barnes is building a culture at her alma mater, working to resurrect a program that has struggled in the Pac-12 for the better part of the last decade.
This season, with four freshmen, including the highly-touted Cate Reese, Arizona will have depth and talent that it didn’t have last season. McDonald’s athleticism, quickness and experience will be a huge addition.
“She does so many different things for us, she allows us to extend our defense because of her ability,” Barnes said.
McDonald, who played in a Final Four as a freshman with Washington two years ago, said she is looking to be a leader on the floor, that person who “rallies my team through the storm and to put points on the board and help my teammates in any way I can to get the win. I want to create havoc on the defensive end. I want to get six steals a game, so hopefully, I can do that.”
To which Barnes replied, “Sounds good to me.”
What perhaps sounds less pleasing is that 10th-place prediction. But Barnes said she has no problem being an underdog.
“I’ve been an underdog my whole life. For me, I like it,” Barnes said. “I don’t mind where you are picked in the beginning. It just matters where you finish. I didn’t really expect to be much higher…We are still young and I think our league is so competitive and there is so much parity, it is hard to go up.”
But the Wildcats have unmistakable goals to do just that.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got to go do it on the court,” Barnes said.
Sun Devils more than “Guard U”
Arizona State is deeper and more experienced this year than any team Charli Turner Thorne feels like she has had in a long time, perhaps since her team made an Elite Eight run back in 2009.
“We have amazing talent right now,” Turner Thorne said.
ASU returns 10 players from a team that had no seniors last season. There are now four seniors on the Sun Devils roster, led by forward Kianna Ibis.
Junior Reili Richardson said the Sun Devils’ sixth-place finish in the Pac-12 and second-round elimination in the NCAA Tournament was a disappointment. A motivating one.
“We didn’t do as well as we wanted to last year,” Richardson said. “This year’s off-season, we really focused on getting back to Sun Devil defense and making shots.”
Making shots. That might be the thing that sets this ASU team apart from some of its past defensively-focused teams.
“We have a lot of options,” Turner Thorne said. “And, our freshmen can play.”
One freshman, Iris Mbulito, who comes in from Spain, was the MVP of the FIBA Under-20 World Championships. Taya Hanson also competed for the Canadian national team in that tournament.
“We like to win. Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, Charli loves defense.’ But Charli loves to win. We love to win,” Turner Thorne said. “That's the constant that we know we can bring every game. That's without the depth last year. We couldn't do everything we wanted to do. And we might be more diversified than we've been because we have so much talent and depth.”