So, Lindsay Whalen was asked, what is the biggest reason for optimism that the Gophers women’s basketball team will be better this year than last?
The quick answer: Continuity.
“It’s the second year in the system,” she said.
She was talking about her players. But that goes for the coach, too. Whalen is in her second season as the Gophers’ head coach, coming off a 21-11 season full of ups and downs — including a 2-7 start and 7-2 finish in Big Ten play and one victory in the Women’s NIT.
The new season starts at 3 p.m. today against Missouri State at Williams Arena.
A year ago at this time Whalen still was getting to know her team, and not just because she was the new coach. She’d spent her summer finishing up her WNBA career playing for the Lynx, a responsibility that in some ways, in retrospect, she rues.
This year it’s different.
“It has been great,” she said. “Just settling in, knowing what to expect, being here, being more comfortable. Just being able to get into a routine has been really good for me. I was able to get some rest this August, get some time away, and then really hit September with recruiting and workouts here. And then into October into practice it’s been good.”
But will the Gophers be better than last year? Whalen is already on the record stating that a return to the NCAA tournament is the goal. The view from outside the program is lofty, too, given that the Gophers are ranked No. 23 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.
Continuity, of course, is one reason for heightened expectations. But talent is, too.
Kenisha Bell, last year’s floor leader, crunch time go-to and leading scorer (19.1 points per game) is gone. But the next three top scorers — Destiny Pitts, Taiye Bello and Jasmine Brunson — are back. Gadiva Hubbard — one of the team’s best three-point shooters two years ago when the Gophers went to the second round of the NCAA tournament under former coach Marlene Stollings — is back after missing last season because of a foot injury.
Mercedes Staples, a guard whose freshman season was plagued by a recurring ankle injury, also is healthy.
This, to start the season, is the Gophers’ starting lineup. All five could be better than they were a season ago:
Pitts: Last season she scored 16.3 points a game. But after being switched back to power forward when Whalen went with a small lineup after the slow Big Ten start, Pitts went off. She averaged 21.5 points in her final 12 games, including a string of eight straight with 20 or more points.
Brunson: Already a strong perimeter defender on defense and penetrator on offense, she has worked on her shot all summer and, Whalen believes, could become a three-point threat.
Staples: Ranked by ESPN’s Hoopgurlz as the 64th-ranked recruit in her class, she is healthy. Staples sprained her ankle in the team’s first practice last season, then four more times after that. Expect Staples — who will start at off guard — to be a key player.
Bello: A rebounding machine last season — she was ninth in the nation at 11.9 per game — averaged 9.7 points last season. This year Whalen expects a step-up in scoring.
Hubbard: She had eight 20-plus point games in 2017-18, 23 games with 10 or more points. She shot nearly 41% overall and 34.5% on three-pointers while averaging 13.6 points.
The bench could be deeper than last season. But that is yet to be seen. With center Annalese Lamke gone, the top backup big will be Bello’s sister, Kehinde. The top guards off the bench are all new: freshmen Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia and junior college transfer Masha Adashchyk.
Whalen is confident the Gophers will be able to score. With the return of Hubbard she believes her team will shoot better (they were sixth in the Big Ten in three-point percentage last year at 32.9%) and more often (they were 11th in three-pointers made per game at 3.5). Brunson and Powell’s ability to penetrate and the spacing provided by Hubbard and Staples — and Scalia off the bench — should make it harder for opponents to double-team Pitts.
There are questions. Whalen is committed to the smaller lineup, but some opponents — particularly in the Big Ten — will force the Gophers to go bigger. Rebounding will be an issue.
But the bottom line is the Gophers have NCAA tournament aspirations.
“Our goal, no question, is to get these kids back there,’’ Whalen said. “They were there two years ago, that’s their goal. We’ll give it every ounce we have into it.”