As hard as she tried, Rachel Banham couldn't find the right words to describe the fresh look the Gophers will unveil in Friday's season opener against Wofford. "It will be a totally different team," the senior guard said. "We'll be playing a little bit smaller, but faster. I think people are just going to have to see it."
After All-America center Amanda Zahui B. and all-Big Ten forward Shae Kelley moved on, the Gophers were forced to do the same. In their second season under coach Marlene Stollings, they plan to continue with the speedy, high-energy style she favors, with a four-guard lineup powered by Banham. The fifth-year senior has fully recovered from a knee injury that cost her most of last season and will rotate among four positions as she seeks to become the top scorer in Gophers history.
Zahui left early for the WNBA, and Kelley joined the Lynx after completing her eligibility. The twin engines who led the Gophers to a 23-10 record and an NCAA tournament appearance accounted for nearly half of the team's points and rebounds. With no veteran centers or forwards on the roster, the Gophers hope that thinking small will lead to big results.
"It will be different not having [Zahui and Kelley]," said senior Mikayla Bailey, one of four starting guards. "They were great players for us. But with Rachel coming back and having more of a guard-oriented team, we can really push the ball.
"We can all shoot the three. We'll have a lot of threats from different areas on the court. And pushing the ball will help our team be fast-paced on defense and offense. I think we can do really well with that system."
So does Stollings. From the time she took over the program in April 2014, she has laid the foundation for a swift, crowd-pleasing style. This year's roster, she said, is tailor-made to fit the game she wants to play.
Stollings was pleased to see her team embrace the rigorous conditioning program she established before last season. After a second summer of gut-busting workouts, guard Carlie Wagner said the Gophers returned even stronger and faster. That will be important, she said, for a team that will rely on its guards to rebound as well as score.
Zahui and Kelley took down 50 percent of the Gophers' rebounds and put up 48 percent of their points. Stollings said every player will have to pitch in to fill that void, and she has challenged everyone who plays 20 minutes or more to get at least six rebounds per game. The versatile Banham is expected to pick up much of the scoring slack, but Wagner said a roster filled with sharpshooters will give the Gophers several options.
"Even our posts can shoot the three," said Wagner, who averaged 12.1 points last year for a team that set a program record by making 214 three-point shots. "When all five people on the floor can shoot, that's going to be hard to guard. We're going to be playing a lot higher pace with a lot more three-point shots."
Five of the Gophers' newcomers — three centers and two forwards — did not arrive on campus until September and still are learning their way around the program. Junior-college transfers Karley Barnes, a 6-3 center, and Kynadi Johnson, a 6-1 forward, have had their integration slowed by injuries.
Stollings anticipates a lively competition among the other three for the vacancy left by Zahui. Danielle Garven, the first high school player signed by Stollings, has played for Canada in the under-16 and under-17 world championships; an excellent three-point shooter, the 6-1 forward can play inside or outside.
Jessie Edwards and Annalesse Lamke both are 6-3 centers who were signed in mid-July. Stollings said Lamke's style of play has been compared to former Gopher Janel McCarville, and Edwards is another versatile player who brings international experience. While Stollings expects one of them to be named the starting center, none has locked up the spot yet — creating a healthy competition she views as beneficial to her team.
"I wouldn't mind if that continued, even throughout the season," Stollings said. "We'll see how quickly they can adapt to the rigors and the pace of play at this level, and who rises to the top."