For a CliffsNotes version of the Gophers women's basketball 2020-21 season, we offer you two games, bookends on the season that will tell much of what you need to know:
When the Gophers started the season with a 72-68 victory over Eastern Illinois in early December, coach Lindsay Whalen had seven healthy players, three of whom had never played in a college game and a fourth that was playing for the first time in nearly two years. When the Gophers ended the season with a 72-61 loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament, Whalen had eight available players, but was without three starters.
Whalen shook her head at the memory after a recent practice. The Gophers will officially open the 2021-22 season Tuesday with a home game against Jacksonville. And they'll do it with a roster that includes virtually every player who contributed last season, with the addition of the freshman class of Alanna Micheaux and Maggie Czinano and grad transfers Bailey Helgren and Deja Winters.
But a year ago, in the weeks and months that led up to the COVID-19-abbreviated season, the coach barely had a roster.
"Up until five days before our first game, we had three people able to practice," Whalen said. "We had maybe five days with six or seven. Honestly, December was just trying to get people back, get people healthy. Those were some tough days."
Even with so many familiar faces and a starting lineup that could remain unchanged — though Helgren has a shot at being the starting center — Whalen is convinced this year's team will be much better than last season's 8-13 record (7-11 Big Ten). She sees key players ready to make a leap, and a team ready, willing and healthy enough to play.
"The record we had represented the amount of struggle we had having a young team play during the pandemic," Whalen said. "It's not a lost year. We learned a lot. And we learned that, when we had a group and we worked hard every day, we had some nice games."
Strength in numbers
Every team in college basketball was affected by the pandemic, some more than the Gophers. Michigan had to cancel games, for example. But for a young team about to start two sophomores at guard and a forward, Kadi Sissoko, who hadn't played for more than a year, the lack of practice doomed the season's start.
"Everything was uncertain," senior guard Gadiva Hubbard said. "Sometimes we only had six people in practice, sometimes we had everybody. So it was just going with whatever we had last year."
This year has been different. The team has been healthy, for the most part, and with the men's practice players again available, the Gophers had a strong October training camp. With the exception of guard Katie Borowicz, who will miss the season after undergoing back surgery, almost every player Whalen is counting on for a rotation that could go nine players deep is available.
Last year guard Sara Scalia was sidelined for weeks because of stress fractures in her legs; she missed preseason practice and the season opener. During the season she played through a separated shoulder before being injured again prior to the conference tournament.
Hubbard was never the same after injuring her ankle late in an 85-76 victory at Penn State on Jan. 25. Point guard Jasmine Powell's season was slowed by multiple ankle injuries; she ultimately missed the team's final four games.
Scalia and Powell, who led the team in scoring at 14.5 points per game each, are back and have looked good in practice. Both made the Big Ten All-Freshman Team two seasons ago. Last year Powell was second-team all-conference, Scalia honorable mention. Both should be better.
Sissoko, the athletic, quick 6-2 forward from France, spent the summer of 2020 holed up in her Paris home because of COVID restrictions. This summer was spent in Minneapolis, working on her game. She could be the team's most dynamic player.
"We have strides to take defensively," Powell said. "We all know we can score. If we pick it up defensively, we could be unstoppable."
Goal: NCAA tournament
Even during a difficult season, Whalen saw glimpses of what the team could be. The Gophers began the season 2-7, including a 1-6 start in conference play. But then the Gophers won three in a row and five of seven during a relatively brief window in which most of the team's players were healthy.
It didn't last.
But Whalen is convinced the team emerged from last season tougher and more tightly knit.
It's been so different. COVID-19 is still an issue. But last year players had to get tested on every game day as part of the pregame routine. Whalen remembers the team eating pregame meals, socially distanced, in the eastern lobby of Williams Arena. When the team ate together in Williams Arena's club room before last week's 78-33 exhibition victory against Division-II Minnesota Crookston, it was a joy.
A year ago the Gophers jumped into the season not knowing what to expect. This time? With great expectations.
Whalen expects a top-half finish in the Big Ten, which would mean an NCAA tournament invitation, something that eluded the Gophers the past three years.
"I want to play in the tournament," Whalen said.
All the top scorers are back. Helgren and Winters should make big contributions.
"If we put it all together?" Scalia said. "We have a solid starting five, for sure. It's the chemistry of putting it all together. But I think it's going to be really good."