Under other circumstances, Pam Borton might have been nervous about opening the basketball season on the road. But given what the Gophers women's basketball coach has seen from her team thus far, she can't wait to get on the plane.
That's not just because the Gophers are headed to Daytona Beach, Fla., to kick off the season at this weekend's WBI Tip Off Classic. Borton is thrilled at the rapid development of her young team, which she said is improving in every practice. Exhibition victories over St. Cloud State and Bemidji State just whetted her appetite to dive into a challenging start to the season, beginning Friday against Arkansas.
The Gophers will play the Razorbacks of the SEC, No. 13 Florida State of the ACC and South Florida of the Big East. Borton knows she will learn much more about her team over the three games, but players already have given her plenty of confidence.
"It's like a pre-NCAA tournament this week," said Borton, embarking on her 10th season with the Gophers. "These are three difficult games. We're facing teams from three different conferences, and we have a lot to prove, as far as the Big Ten and our program. ... I think we're ready to face anybody right now. Other teams have a lot to look out for with us."
In the past, Borton said, she would have expected her team to give its best effort for 20 or 25 minutes in a game at this point of the season. She has been delighted to see 40 minutes of fiery competition from her players in their two exhibition games, as well as marked improvement from the first game to the second.
After committing 20 turnovers in their 35-point victory over St. Cloud State, the Gophers lost the ball only eight times in a 92-50 blowout of Bemidji State. They also sharpened up on defense, holding the Beavers to 18 points and a field-goal percentage of 16 percent in the second half. Borton said her team continued to get better in practice earlier this week, demonstrating both enthusiasm and an ability to learn quickly.
With freshman point guard Rachel Banham leading the charge, the Gophers have the ability to play a more up- tempo style, which Borton said has energized them. "Everyone coming in is keeping the level of intensity very high," she said. "With the balanced scoring we have, we can have five people on the floor at any given time that can score.
"We're running a lot more. It's a lot more fun to watch, and the players enjoy playing that type of style. We're playing like a veteran team right now."
After playing three games in three days this weekend, the Gophers open their home season next weekend with the Subway Classic. They play Binghamton on Saturday, then face either North Dakota State or Nevada on Sunday.