To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag this week. Star Tribune beat writers are fielding questions about the teams they cover and you ask them here.
Q. When will we see Whalen recruit a physical, dominant post presence?
A. Post players who can dominate at both ends of the floor are rare. But Whalen and her staff have worked very hard to beef up the post position in general, especially with the exit of Taiye Bello, one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten the last two seasons.
One thing we can say with some certainty: The Gophers will be deeper, much deeper, in the post than they have been in Whalen’s first two seasons.
Reasons for optimism:
--The improved play of Klarke Sconiers, who played better late in the season, in particular in the Gophers’ loss to Ohio State in the conference tournament. She is big, but still rather raw, especially offensively. But she has potential.
--The off-season additions, via transfer, of forward Laura Bagwell-Katalinich (a graduate transfer from Cornell) and Kayla Mershon, the forward/center from Nebraska. Bagwell-Katalinich is a lock to be eligible this season. If Mershon is eligible – if, for example, the NCAA passes it’s one-time transfer waiver rule – both of these players could help. Bagwell-Katalinich is more of true power forward, a strong rebounder. Mershon has size and a number of Big Ten starts in two years in Nebraska.
--Grace Cummings, a 2019 recruit who redshirted, will be added to the mix.
None of the above is likely the “dominant’’ player being asked about. But there is talent here. And depth, something Whalen didn’t have much of in the post last season.
Q. What do you think the Gophers women’s starting five looks like for next season based on what you know right now?
A. It will look far different. The Gophers return three starters from last season in point guard Jasmine Powell, wing Sara Scalia and wing Gadiva Hubbard. Powell was a consensus all-rookie pick by both the Big Ten Media and coaches and Scalia was named all-rookie by the media.
Here’s how I see an early starting five:
--Powell averaged 12.1 points, 3.1 assists and shot 30 percent from three over the course of the season. But, moved into the starting lineup for the final 12 games, she averaged 17.1 points – scoring in double figures in all but one game – 3.4 assists and shot 35.5 percent on three-pointers.
--Scalia made 36.9 percent of her three-pointers while averaging 10.8 points per game.
--Kadi Sissoko. The addition of Sissoko can’t be understated. One person who watched the team practice this season said her addition – she becomes eligible after sitting out following her transfer from Syracuse – will be enormous. She is a talented, athletic 6-2 wing who will provide scoring and length and tenaciousness on the defensive end. She was a top-10 recruit in her class when she first came out. She could be a difference-maker. Because of the way her roster was constructed, Whalen often had to go small – with four guards, essentially, around Taiye Bello in the middle. This was often a problem against big, physical Big Ten teams. Sissoko will make the Gophers lineup more athletic and longer.
--Hubbard. Another offensive threat on the floor in Sissoko should help Hubbard immensely. She led the team with 63 three-pointers made last season, shooting 35.2 percent from behind the arc.
--At center? This is the toughest call. How much will Klarke Sconiers improve from her freshman year? Will Nebraska transfer Kayla Mershon become eligible? We have yet to see four-star post recruit, Erin Hedman from Wisconsin, in a Gophers uniform.
Also to note:
--Whalen’s bench will be deeper, and so will her rotation. Incoming point guard Alexia Smith from Columbus is a four-star recruit who figures to get significant time as a freshman, much like Powell did last year.
--Cornell transfer Laura Bagwell-Katalinich, whose rebounding and scoring ability is much-needed, could very well start at the four against bigger teams. She’ll get good minutes regardless.
--It will be interesting to see what Grace Cumming and Justice Ross – who both sat last season – will show. There is also more depth in the post from Barbora Tomancova.
--Caroline Strande, the high-scoring combo guard from Wisconsin will likely figure into the rotation.
Q. Do the Gophers have a realistic of making the NCAA tournament next year?
A. I would say the chances are good, especially if Sissoko is as advertised. The chances improve should someone emerge into an impact player in the post.