The goal of the Gophers women's basketball team is to contend for the Big Ten title and, come March, be in position for an NCAA tournament run. The validity of those hopes will be tested immediately. The Gophers open the regular season tonight against UC-Riverside, which even without top player Kemie Nkele (recovering from offseason knee surgery), should provide a stiff test. UC-Riverside returns all 13 rostered players from last season's team, which was 21-11 and earned a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth. The Gophers were 17-16 last season playing seven freshmen. This year only one freshman -- center Kristen Dockery -- is likely to see regular playing time. But the added experience will not result in automatic success. Here are five question marks the team must answer to reach its goals.
1 Is Emily Fox a go-to scorer?
Gophers coach Pam Borton is certain the answer is yes, going as far as to compare Fox to former All-America Lindsay Whalen. But until midway through last season, Fox was a pass-first point guard. The 5-9 junior did average 16.5 points in four games last season that Kelly Roysland sat out because of a broken collarbone, but the Gophers lost all four games. Fox needs to show she can score consistently in a set half-court offense. Because the Gophers, while strong in the transition game, are lacking in half-court scoring threats.
2 Is there a case for the defense?
Borton's teams pride themselves on intense, in-your-face defense. The Gophers were ninth in the Big Ten in field-goal defense last season, allowing conference opponents to shoot 43.5 percent from the field. No coincidence that the top four conference teams -- Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue and Illinois -- were the best in field-goal defense, all under 38.5 percent. "I think we got better defensively [last year] as the season went along, and I think we're better now than we were at the end of last season," Borton said.
3 What's a three?
The three-point shot can make or break a halfcourt offense. A year ago Minnesota was last in the Big Ten with an average of 3.52 three-pointers made per game. The Gophers return only two players -- Fox and Katie Ohm -- who made more than two three-point field goals last season. The Gophers expect the bulk of scoring to come from the backcourt combo of Fox and Brittany McCoy, but McCoy made only two of seven three-point attempts in 33 games last season, and like Fox excels in the transition game. Expect opponents to use a lot of zones, which necessitate halfcourt execution and outside shooting.
4 Is there strength in numbers?
The Gophers have already lost senior tri-captain Jordan Barnes to a season-ending knee injury. With a roster that includes only seven players with previous major college playing experience, the Gophers can't afford another major injury. Zoe Harper, Ohm and JC transfer Kay Sylva are the reserves in an eight-player rotation, and Dockery could give the club a ninth, and there are only question marks after that.