For the next few days, the Gophers women's basketball team will be anchored in the present as it heads to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament. But as coach Pam Borton monitors Kayla Hirt's recovery, she is already envisioning the Gophers' future -- while wondering how this year might have been different if the 6-2 freshman had not been injured.
Hirt was felled by a torn knee ligament in October and was lost for the season before it began. She and point guard Rachel Banham, who were ranked as the nation's 17th-best recruiting class in 2011, were expected to play major roles for a vastly improved Gophers team. Banham fulfilled those projections on her way to Big Ten freshman of the year honors, while Hirt watched an inconsistent, scoring-challenged team from the sidelines.
Borton noted the Gophers (14-16, 6-10 Big Ten) strengthened their rebounding this season, as well as their ability to score in transition and play at a higher tempo. While they have defeated two ranked teams -- including No. 9 Ohio State, their first victory over a ranked opponent in three years -- they have been unable to get on a roll, often following superb performances with subpar ones.
Should the eighth-seeded Gophers defeat ninth-seeded Wisconsin in Thursday's tournament opener, they would face top seed Penn State, ranked No. 9 in the country, in the quarterfinals. They must win the Big Ten tournament to earn an NCAA tournament bid. The odds are stacked against them, but Borton said she believes their future will be considerably brightened by a healthy Hirt.
"I can't even describe the impact Kayla would have had," said Borton, who had projected Hirt would start immediately. "She would have brought as much to our program as Rachel did.
"In those 11 days [that Hirt practiced], we saw what our team could actually look like. It made us deeper. It made us bigger. It made us more athletic. It gave us another legitimate scorer. That's a big thing this team lacks: consistent scoring, consistent ball handling and a consistent inside presence."
The Gophers still could make it into the NIT, though their postseason will not last long if they cannot find a way to maintain a high level of play. They lost to the Badgers at home in January in one of their poorest showings of the season, three days before one of their best, in the victory over Ohio State.
While her teammates have often struggled, Banham's self-assured performance immediately established her as a star. She leads the team with 16.1 points per game, the highest scoring average of any Big Ten freshman and the seventh-best in the league. Even when opponents began targeting her, Banham often found a way to carry her team, and she has impressed Borton with her constant drive to improve.
Banham's charisma and flair on the court won over the fans, while her humility and willingness to bear heavy responsibilities won over her teammates and coaches. She has started all 30 games, is tops in the Big Ten with a three-point shooting percentage of .438 and has been the Gophers' leading scorer in 19 games.
"She has been off the charts,'' Borton said. "I don't think any one of us expected Rachel, or any freshman, to come in and do what she's done. I'll tell her she's doing a great job, and she'll say, 'I'm not doing enough for our team to win. What more can I do?' You can't say that about everybody."
That has inspired Hirt to make just as grand a debut next season. She has only recently resumed running and jumping, and she is working on techniques she hopes will help her avoid future injuries. Hirt, from Bemidji, missed her senior high school season when she tore the ACL in her left knee; the tear in October was to the same ligament in her right knee.
"At this time next year, I want to be doing exactly what [Banham] has done,'' Hirt said. "I've noticed in certain games, we don't do all the little things. I want to make sure I'm that player who gets the team going and does the little things that will help us win."