CHICAGO – When Gophers captain Rachel Banham saw her name on both the preseason women’s basketball coaches and media All-Big Ten first teams, she only saw that as more attention for her team.
After not cracking the top seven in the league for the past four seasons, Minnesota feels it’s ready for a close-up. The Gophers have a new intriguing center in Amanda Zahui B., their offense appears to be clicking once more, and the team’s defense seems primed for a makeover.
At the head of it all is Banham, who has been the target of all sorts of early accolades, including being on the Wooden Award watch list.
“It’s really exciting,” the junior point guard said. “It just gives me more goals, more things to reach and achieve and something to look forward to, hopefully if I keep working hard and do what I need to do. It puts me on the national scene, and it puts our team up there, which helps. People will recognize us more. And I think that’s something that we want and deserve. I’m excited, I think it’s cool and I’m happy.”
Step one in making the new attention worth it is actually making gains on defense. A year ago, the Gophers could score but struggled mightily on defense.
“Our issues were on the defensive end,” coach Pam Borton said. “Offensively I think we had one of the better teams that we’ve had in a number of years … but getting our kids to buy in and start having fun playing on the defensive end will solve a lot of ills.”
The women’s preseason player of the year by coaches and media was Penn State senior guard Maggie Lucas. Guard Klarissa Bell (Michigan State), forward Jordan Hooper (Nebraska) and guard Courtney Moses (Purdue) joined Lucas and Banham on the coaches first team, while guard Samantha Logic (Iowa) replaced Bell on the media’s first team. Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan State finished 1, 2 and 3 in the conference in both polls.
Happy to have him back
That Michigan State guard Gary Harris was acknowledged as the preseason Big Ten player of the year is no mistake, Spartans coach Tom Izzo said, because the Indiana native just might end up as one of the best guards he’s ever coached. Harris could have fared well in the NBA draft this summer, had he decided to declare. Instead, the sophomore is back for a second season, and if all goes according to plan, maybe even a championship. Michigan State was named No. 1 in the preseason poll, and is in the top two of many national polls.
“There are a couple of unique things about Gary Harris,” Izzo said. “One is his mental approach to things. He’s a very humble kid, and he’s low maintenance. That’s odd in this day and age. And the second thing, he’s a shooter that guards people. And that’s odd in this day and age, or any age, in fact, now that I think back to some of the guys that we’ve had many years ago.
“So I just think that he came back because he wanted to come back. He came back to try to accomplish more. He stayed up there all summer, didn’t go to the USA stuff or this or that. He just wanted to rehab, get healthy and get better. And he’s a gym rat.”
On the Spartans’ heels
Michigan was ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll, with Ohio State at No. 3. Harris, forward Mitch McGary (Michigan), forward Adreian Payne (Michigan State), guard Aaron Craft (Ohio State) and guard Tim Frazier (Penn State) joined him on the preseason All-Big Ten team.