The Gophers women’s basketball season, with two nonconference games and 20 Big Ten games, gets underway Wednesday. Here are five stories to follow during this unusual season:
Playing in a pandemic
This is a problem for every team embarking on the season: Will it last all the way to March? “I still kind of think we won’t get all the way through to March,” senior Gadiva Hubbard said. “We’re taking it day by day.” Other sports have seen postponements and cancellations. One thing is sure. The Gophers are going to treat every game they do play as a blessing. “We’re grateful to have this opportunity,” coach Lindsay Whalen said. “It’s something I don’t take for granted.”
Getting on the same page
There are a lot of new faces who, once the team is healthy, will play big roles — including transfers Kadi Sissoko, Laura Bagwell Katalinich and, if she gets a waiver, Kayla Mershon. Add to that a freshman class that, led by Alexia Smith and Erin Hedman, will see big minutes. How quickly can the coaching staff get all these new players to play as a team in a year in which the coronavirus has made practicing so difficult?
Sophomore Jasmine Powell is the team’s top returning scorer from last season, when she reached double figures in 13 of the Gophers’ final 14 games and finished averaging 12.1 points. She came back this fall in wonderful shape, and has looked good in practices. With Jasmine Brunson gone, Powell will have the full weight of the offense on her shoulders, but she needs to improve her efficiency. She shot 35.5% overall last season, 30% on threes, and had about as many assists (96) as turnovers (99). All those numbers have to improve.
Getting back quickly
Starters Sara Scalia, Laura Bagwell Katalinich and Alexia Smith will all miss the two preseason games because illness or injury. But they should be back for the start of the Big Ten season. All three were having very strong camps before being sidelined. Their ability to come back without showing much rust will be key to a strong start in the conference schedule.
If Kayla Mershon gets her transfer waiver, the Gophers would have some depth in the post. Without her? Whalen will be rather thin, especially in experience, inside. Who will rebound now that Taiye Bello has graduated? Bello could be counted on for 10 boards a game the past two years. Sophomore Klarke Sconiers will have to take a big step.