They’re newcomers to Conference USA. Yet, Middle Tennessee is the preseason No. 1 team.
The Lady Blue Raiders were the winners of the Sun Belt Conference in 2012-13 after a stellar 25-8 overall record, 17-3 in conference play. In addition, Middle Tennessee coaching legend Rick Insell enters his ninth season with a 199-62 win-loss record. The Blue Raiders look to make their sixth NCAA tournament appearance with the likes of 6-foot-1 senior forward, Ebony Rowe.
Rowe was an All-American Honorable Mention in 2012-13 and already holds the Blue Raider record for career rebounds (1,014). The Lexington, Ky., product is the only women's basketball player in school history to have reached 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career. She produced 21 double-doubles, averaged 19.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game last season.
Another team to watch closely will be the Lady Techsters of Louisiana Tech, coached by Hall-of-Famer and former Lady Techster, Teresa Weatherspoon. Having won a national championship in 1988, she’s looking to get her team back to that stage after an overall 14-17, 9-9 WAC conference record. Back in 2010 and 2011, Weatherspoon’s Techsters advanced to the NCAA tournament. The 2013 team will be without three of its four top scorers.
However, Weatherspoon will count on 5-foot-8 junior transfer, Chrisstasia Walter, from Hutchinson CC, to lead the way.
“She will be the point guard of our squad,” says Weatherspoon. “Her energy is unbelievable. Her motor never stops. She always puts people in position to be successful. She takes everybody to their strengths. She makes everybody around her better.”
Better describes Conference USA women’s basketball, which just added Charlotte, FAU, FIU, North Texas, UTSA and traditional powerhouses Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion.
The Lady Monarchs alone have celebrated three national championships and several NIT, AIAW, and NCAA appearances. This is a team on the rise after an overall 19-12, 10-8 Colonial Athletic Conference record. The coach of this team is Karen Barefoot, who is in her third season and brings high energy and the ability to motivate.
Barefoot has four starters returning from the 2012 team in junior forward Shae Kelley, junior guard Ashley Betz-White, Galaisha Goodhope, and Shakeva Richards. She expects her squad to bring the pressure—especially in the new Conference USA.
“It starts with defense first,” says Barefoot. “We’re a defensive team, up-tempo, that has a lot of possessions. We love to push and share the ball—we love to press. I always say that we want to lead the nation in high-fives and floor burns. That’s who we are.”
The Lady Monarchs are also a team that will travel to non-conference foes Ohio State and Duke. However, once non-conference games have been played, the conference schedule awaits. Nine teams from the new Conference-USA made post-season appearances during 2012-13.
But, what’s really important to understand is that while Louisiana Tech is the second most-winning program in women’s college basketball history, Old Dominion sits at No. 3. Night in and night out, competition will be stern.
“Every night you’ve got to bring it,” says Barefoot. “I think that’s what’s going to be exciting for the fans. With the new legislation rule with the ten-second backcourt, it’s going to be up-tempo, fast-paced. I think the fans are going to enjoy it.”
NEW & EXISTING
Charlotte was a team that finished 26-6 overall, but 13-1 in conference and earned a post-season appearance to the NIT. In fact, the 49ers have been in post-season play the last 11 consecutive seasons. So, according to third-year head coach, Cara Consuegra, playing in the postseason and competing for championships is expected. Also expect Consuegra and her team to be ready for C-USA.
“The A-10 is a great league and certainly we enjoyed our time in there,” said Consuegra. “But, I think Conference USA really gets us back to our roots. (It) gives us a chance to play teams that I think more of our fans identify with. And I think it’s going to be a great women’s basketball league. They brought in some great teams mixed in with some that have stayed and I think top to bottom it’s going to be a better league than some might think.”
Rice head coach Greg Williams and the Lady Owls are one of those teams that stayed. They finished 14-16 overall, 6-10 in conference. Regardless, the Lady Owls boast one of the best forwards in the nation.
Six-foot-two inch senior Jessica Kuster averaged a double-double last season with 16.1 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game. Williams expects the same or similar type performance from Kuster and teammates Megan Palmer, Christal Porter, Nakachi Maduka.
“We’re more experienced than a year ago,” said Williams. “Hopefully that will reflect in performance. We return 92 percent of our rebounding and 89 percent of our scoring. Hopefully, the experience/confidence-gained will be productive because we lost a lot of close games last year. We also won a lot of close games. We return four starters and we return our top four scorers.”
But even with the players returning, expectations are that the Lady Owls will finish in the middle of the pack.
Tulsa is an original charter C-USA school and looks to make a statement under third-year head coach Matilda Mossman, The Golden Hurricane finished 17-17 overall, 8-8 in conference. However, Mossman’s group won the 2012 C-USA conference tournament, which opened the door to an NCAA tournament appearance.
C-USA championship MVP guard Taleya Mayberry has graduated and there are seven freshmen on the roster. However, Mossman still has a compliment of players on which she can rely.
“It’ll start with Kelsee Grovey,” said Mossman. “She’s a returning starter from last year. Though she’s only a sophomore, she was on the All-Freshman team last year. I think the kids on our team trust her. They know that she knows basketball.”
Mossman will also look to 5-foot-9 junior guard Kaden Brady, who Mossman said has been that “glue” on the team. Six-foot-two junior forward Mariah Turner, 5-foot-11 sophomore guard Ashley Clark and 6-foot-2 senior forward Loren McDaniel will most likely round out the strong nucleus Tulsa will need to be competitive.
All-time winningest coach Lisa Stockton and Tulane finished 24-9, 12-5 in C-USA. She lost a very talented class of seniors, but the Green Wave should still be competitive with 5-foot-11 junior guard Danielle Blagg and the rest of a strong junior class leading the way.
“They’ve been playing a lot,” Stockton said. “They’ve been playing since they were freshman. So, that class was the only one in history that had four players that were conference freshmen of the week in one year. So, those players have been on the floor.”
Tulane has won a league-record five tournament titles including three-straight from 1999 to 2001
Southern Miss and 10th-year head coach Joye Lee-McNelis look to improve from an overall record of 15-16, 6-10 in conference.
UAB and 12th-year head coach Keitha Adams expect to compete for a conference championship after finishing with an overall record of 22-10, but 8-8 in conference play.
Marshall, under the direction of second-year floor boss Matt Daniel, has a true turnaround to make after a 9-21, 3-13 finish in 2012-13. However, he has a proven track record of turning broken teams around.
In Daniel’s first year at Central Arkansas he saw his team win six games. However, the following season his team won 21. Daniel’s teams experiencing that type of success points more to the coach’s ability to recruit well and motivate players. Five return while 10 are new.
“We don’t run a program of superstars,” said Daniel. “We run a program where everybody can get rich. I want them to be able to share wealth all over the floor. It can be different kids on any given night and that’s what it’s all about. When you can create a melting pot—a conglomeration of personalities from all over, and all walks, and different backgrounds, that’s the beauty of what we do. I also think it’s what makes us dangerous on the basketball floor.”
C-USA newbies that will soon see just how dangerous Marshall could be are the FAU Owls, coached by second year head coach, Kellie Lewis-Jay.
Lewis-Jay took over in May 2012 and coached the Owls to a 12-17overall, 9-11 conference record with a six-player rotation. The 2013 team is comprised of more players with a combination of seven seniors, four freshmen, one sophomore and one junior.
But Lewis-Jay can see improvement. Some of that improvement occurred during the first-time summer program instituted by Lewis-Jay and her staff. Based on where the team first began with the new coaching staff to where it is today, all indications point to a team that could be a lot more competitive in 2013.
“I think the team understands now what’s expected of them,” said Lewis-Jay. “Last year I had to let some bad shots go because I didn’t want them to get apprehensive. But this year, I think they’ve learned, ‘OK, that’s probably not a great shot.’ They’ll turn to me before I even have to say anything.
“So, just learning what’s expected on them, learning how to come off screens, learning how to set screens—learning how to play the game together. I wish I had these kids another year. It’s sad that I only get them for two years essentially, my seniors. It takes a year for something to click. Last year was kind of a learning year for everybody, figuring out what we want from them. This year is the year to put it all together.”