The first thing you notice when watching the Gophers women's basketball team practice is all the noise coming from all the players.
The Gophers have a 16-player roster, the result of a 2020-21 season affected by COVID-19 and the NCAA's decision to give everyone who played an extra year of eligibility. That means the Gophers – beset by both the virus and by injury – return 12 of the 13 players who scored a point last season, including the top 11.
Add to that incoming freshmen Alanna Micheaux and Maggie Czinano and grad transfers Deja Winters and Bailey Helgren.
That makes for a big group.
Here are some impressions after having watched the team's workout Thursday morning:
For the most part this entire group is healthy. This is a stark contrast to last year, when much of November's practices were wiped away because of the coronavirus and a bunch of injuries. Perhaps the most prominent injury was the stress reactions that kept guard Sara Scalia out of preseason workouts; she didn't return to play until the third game, and it was a while before she found her rhythm.
Not this year. Coach Lindsay Whalen and her staff have had most of the team available for most of the practices. Now, every team around the nation is likely better off than last year, which included a late start and a vastly reduced schedule. But the Gophers were hit particularly hard. Whalen had only three starters and seven healthy players for the Dec. 2 opener, and only eight players available for the second game.
There will be incredible competition for minutes this season, both in the backcourt and at center and forward.
Let's start with guard: Whalen will most likely go with a three-guard starting lineup that includes Scalia, Jasmine Powell and Gadiva Hubbard. Behind them is Alexia Smith, a sophomore who played extensively last season and looks stronger this season; Katie Borowicz, who got a jump-start on her career by joining the team mid-way through last season; fellow sophomore Carolina Strande and graduate transfer Deja Winters. Whalen singled out Winters when asked who has had a strong camp. A strong, physical 5-11, Winters looks very good on defense and has shown she's able to hit shots. Plus she's an experienced player.
And now in the post: Kadi Sissoko will be a fourth starter, and her taking a big jump from last year will be key to the Gophers this season. The competition to start at center will be intense. Junior Klarke Sconiers has improved her defense to go with her post offense. Kayla Mershon showed how valuable she could be in the rotation last season. Add to that 6-5 transfer Bailey Helgren, who has been very strong defensively. Also in the post? Laura Bagwell-Katalinich, sophomore Erin Hedman, Micheaux and junior Grace Cumming.
"It's all over,'' Whalen said of the competition. "We have 16 players, we have eight post players. Some of the backup minutes are gong to be hard to get. It's going to be fierce all over.''
Expect Winters and Helgren to play significant minutes. But don't forget Micheaux. She is a very athletic and physical 6-2 freshman from Michigan who has looked good in camp. Winters, meanwhile, adds some much-needed size to the backcourt.
Taking a jump
Whalen challenged Scalia to be more than a perimeter shooter, for Powell to finish better at the basket, from both sides.
Whalen is expecting a lot, in general, from her junior class, which includes Powell, Scalia Cumming, Sissoko and Sconiers. "They're physically stronger,'' Whalen said. "They're in great shape. It's been fun to watch them from being seniors in high school to now. It's been fun to watch them grow as both people and basketball players.''