Throughout the nonconference schedule, Gophers coach Marlene Stollings has had to exercise patience as a crop of new centers adapted to the college game. Her approach has been to keep things short and simple, limiting both their minutes and their responsibilities.
Her mind-set won’t change when the Gophers begin Big Ten play Thursday at Rutgers. Though their lack of experienced post players presents a huge challenge, Stollings said the development of Jessie Edwards, Karley Barnes and Annalese Lamke cannot be rushed. While they get used to the rugged grind of the Big Ten, the Gophers will continue to rely on their guards to handle most of the scoring and lend a hand on the boards.
The departure of All-America center Amanda Zahui B. for the WNBA left a hole in the middle of the roster that has yet to be filled. The Gophers compiled an 8-3 nonconference record with a lineup featuring four — and sometimes five — guards. They hope their centers can hold their own against the Big Ten’s array of talented post players, even as they continue to learn.
“You have to be realistic about the progress,” Stollings said. “Are they exactly where we want them for Big Ten play? I think we would say no.
“We’ve only had them a short amount of time. They’re certainly making strides. They have a lot of catch-up to do, but their effort is good, and we’re challenging them every day and bringing them along as fast as we can.”
Edwards is the only center or forward to play in all 11 games so far, and her five starts are the most of the group. The 6-3 sophomore from Australia has a team-high 16 blocks and is averaging 6.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. Barnes, a 6-3 junior who transferred from a Florida community college, has been slowed by a knee injury; she has played in seven games, contributing 4.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Those two are getting most of the playing time at center, with Edwards averaging 16.7 minutes and Barnes averaging 14.9. Stollings has begun allocating their time in short bursts; by frequently rotating them in and out of the lineup, she said the quality of their play has improved. She also is asking them to concentrate on defense and rebounding to prevent them from being overwhelmed.
While guard Rachel Banham said the guard-heavy lineup has worked well so far, she knows the centers will be critical in a league well-stocked with inside talent. Maryland’s 6-3 Brionna Jones is a force on offense and defense. Jess Shepard of Nebraska, a 6-4 freshman, is averaging 19.5 points and is considered a potential superstar. Illinois’ 6-3 Chatrice White is among the league’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding and blocks.
“I like the smaller lineup because it’s hard for other teams to guard,” Banham said. “But in the Big Ten, we’re going to have to use our [centers] more just because of the size difference. You need bigger girls to help defend the taller girls.”
None of the Gophers’ new centers arrived on campus until September, giving them less than four months to prepare for Big Ten play. Banham said all have been hitting the weight room hard, and their footwork and decisionmaking have improved through intensive work in practice.
To take pressure off of their big rookies, the Gophers’ guards must continue to rebound as well as they did in nonconference play, when they supplied 64 percent of their team’s total. They also must regain an outside shooting touch that has sagged in recent games.
Stollings said she is likely to keep her starting lineup fluid, adjusting it to match up with opponents. She’s also expecting the centers to continue sharing time as they face their most difficult adjustment yet.
“Big players have to work very hard in this league,” Edwards said. “Playing here has already helped me push my game to another level. I’m looking forward to this challenge.”