At this point, Marlene Stollings can afford to be indecisive. “Every day I walk in here, I keep adjusting my lineup,” the Gophers coach said after a recent practice. “They’re battling it out every day at pretty much every position.”
While much of the focus has been on what Stollings has lost, she is gleeful about what she has gained. Saturday, the third-year coach will begin a season for the first time without guard Rachel Banham, the program’s all-time leading scorer. But her roster is fortified with nine new players who fit Stollings’ vision of a swift, skilled and high-scoring team, one she hopes will make its way back to the NCAA tournament.
Banham leaves a daunting void to fill, beginning with the season opener against Harvard at Williams Arena. Junior guard Carlie Wagner — the only player assured of a place in the starting lineup — promises to take on part of the load. The rest, Stollings hopes, will be spread equitably among a group she declared the speediest of her tenure.
High-scoring guard Kenisha Bell, fifth-year transfer Whitney Tinjum and versatile freshmen Taiye Bello and Gadiva Hubbard are among those competing fiercely for the other four starting spots. And Stollings is likely to continue experimenting with her lineup throughout the nonconference season.
“We’ve taken a huge step in the direction we want to take our program with these nine newcomers,” said Stollings, who led the Gophers to a 20-12 record and the second round of the Women’s NIT last season. “We’re much quicker and more athletic.
“[The new players] are stepping onto the floor for the first time at this level, and they’re going to have to log some minutes and get comfortable playing at this elite level. But their potential is really high.”
Last year, Banham — chosen by Connecticut with the No. 4 pick in the WNBA draft — accounted for 34 percent of the Gophers’ scoring. She finished her career with 3,093 points and will have her jersey retired Jan. 1 at the Gophers’ Big Ten home opener against Maryland.
Behind Banham’s 28.6 points per game, the Gophers averaged 83.6 points last season, breaking a school record that had stood since 1982. Stollings will look to maintain that output, though with more balanced scoring. Wagner, second on the team with 18.9 points per game, is the only returnee among the Gophers’ top four scorers last season.
Most of this year’s roster can play multiple positions, Stollings said, offering her the versatility to use a big or small lineup. Wagner is excited at the potential opened up by the team’s speed — and she also expects it to benefit a Gophers defense that allowed 79.8 points per game, ranking 341st among 344 Division I teams.
“We have a lot to work with,” Wagner said. “Our fast-break ability is huge this year, and we want to shoot three-pointers as always. And because we’re so much faster, we can put ball pressure on people and get up in their shorts. We have really good help defense, too, so we can apply that pressure and know there’s a second line of defense if we get beat.”
Stollings said Bell, who sat out last season after transferring from Marquette, might have the fastest first step in the Big Ten. The 6-2 Bello can run the floor while playing either power forward or center. Hubbard is an outstanding long-range shooter with the skill and savvy to play point guard, shooting guard or small forward. Freshman guard Jasmine Brunson — who honed her game on New York City playground courts — combines scoring ability with ballhandling chops.
Bryanna Fernstrom, the Center City native who transferred from Iowa State last year, will not be eligible to play until the Gophers’ Big Ten opener on Dec. 28. She will give them a powerful shot-blocking presence in the low post, and Stollings said returning post players Jessie Edwards and Karley Barnes will be “held accountable” to improve.
Other newcomers include Tinjum, a 6-1 forward from Chisago Lakes who was the second-leading scorer last season at Bradley; Hungarian national team forward Palma Kaposi, and junior college All-America guard Sue Key.
The Gophers will be tested early by a beefed-up nonconference schedule. They will play at least six opponents that made the NCAA tournament last season, headlined by a game at No. 4 South Carolina and a home game against No. 12 Florida State. That will help Stollings assess what she has, as the Gophers adjust to life without Banham.
“We’re certainly building,” Stollings said. “That part’s not over.
“It takes some years to really get moving where you want to go. But we definitely love the pieces we have in place and where we’re headed, and the challenge our players have in front of them.”