The Golden Gopher women's basketball team opens its exhibition season with a matchup against St. Cloud State on Wednesday. The Gophers and Huskies are scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. Before the action on the court starts, Gophersports.com previews what to look for during the season.
Entering her 10th season as head coach of the University of Minnesota women's basketball team, Pam Bortonknows that her 2011-12 squad has something special. A solid group of returners and a highly touted recruiting class may be just the right pieces the Golden Gophers need to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, and Borton cannot help but be excited to get started.
"I am very excited about this team," Borton said. "I think when you walk into the gym you can really tell the chemistry this team is starting to build. We have been very consistent as a basketball team with our energy and our work ethic. We are a lot more athletic, we are quicker and we are more versatile. I think we are a tougher team both mentally and physically this year. Obviously, you need that when you are playing in the Big Ten and against the schedule we are playing this year. Our players have welcomed being challenged and being pushed out of their comfort zones."
In preparation for another grueling season of Big Ten Conference play, Borton opted to challenge her squad early and often, as she put together a non-conference schedule that will test the Gophers from the first official tip of 2011-12. Minnesota will face teams from the SEC, ACC and Big East in its season-opening tournament, the Tip Off Classic, in Daytona Beach, Fla., from Nov. 11-13.
"If you want to be the best you have to play the best, and I think we are getting tested right from the beginning," Borton stated. "I think that we have the team that can compete at this level every night and that's what the Big Ten Conference schedule is like. You have to bring your A game every single night or you're not going to win. I think a lot of our games in non-conference are set up the same way."
In order to stay competitive throughout their schedule, the team will need to rely heavily its seniors, a quartet that is hungry to bookend its career with another run to the NCAA Tournament.
Kiara Buford, Jackie Voigt, Brianna Mastey and Nicole Masteygot a taste of postseason success as rookies in 2008-09, when they made it to the NCAA Second Round in Notre Dame, Ind., and anticipate being able to give that experience to their young team this season.
Buford returns for her senior campaign as a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention selection and one of the top-five scorers in the Big Ten, with her 14.9 points per game in 2010-11 ranking ninth in conference standings and fourth among returning players.
After having to shoulder the responsibility of being the Gophers' point guard last year, Burford will benefit greatly from the presence of rookie Rachel Banham, a true point guard who was named 2011 Minnesota Miss Basketball after averaging 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists in her senior campaign at Lakeville North High School.
"I think Kiara can be more of a scorer with Rachel at point," Borton said. "She will have less ball-handling responsibilities and will have to do less play-making every single time down the floor. I think a lot of that fell on Kiara, and I think her shooting percentage went down because she was forced to take a lot of bad shots. A lot of the weight is taken off her shoulders, and I think having a point guard that can create her own shot is beneficial. She's got a pull-up, she can get to the rim and she has a three-point shot. She just makes other people better. It's going to make the game easier for everybody around her."
Ranked in the top-five nationally as a point guard by ESPN.com, the addition of Banham allows Buford to return her focus to scoring, while also opening up more opportunities for the frontcourt.
Voigt and junior Katie Lobergreturn to the frontcourt with a tremendous amount of experience. Voigt has started 90 games for the Gophers in her career, averaging 6.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, while Loberg received her real taste of action last season, logging 513 minutes in 23 starts. Loberg posted per-game averages of 9.0 points and 4.4 rebounds in her first season as a starter.
Over the last four weeks, Loberg has proved to be one of the most improved players since last spring and will only get better as the season goes on with more playing time and, again, a point guard to feed her the rock.
"Katie is probably one of the most improved players from last year. She is growing into playing at this level," Borton said of the junior. "She has improved her perimeter skills defensively and I think she is really going to flourish playing with a true point guard this year."
Though Kionna Kelloggstarted her career as a Gopher in the frontcourt, the 2011 Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection made the transition to the backcourt and started the last 11 games of the season in 2010-11. She averaged 3.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in 480 minutes on the hardwood.
Borton also returns Brianna Mastey, Nicole Mastey, Leah Cotton and Sari Noga to the guard mix, with the quartet accounting for 550 points of offense a year ago. Add to the experienced returners newcomer Alex Ionescu, who brings International playing experience, and the Gophers have a talented group to run the floor.
Kayla Hirt, one half of Borton's nationally ranked recruiting class, will have to miss the 2011-12 season after tearing her ACL during practice. Her departure for the year is a signifcant blow to the team, but Borton expects the rookie to make a valiant return in 2012-13.
"We were expecting a lot of big things from Kayla, as she came in as a highly touted national recruit along with Rachel," Borton said. "Kayla is a special player and she is going to be really hard to replace, but if anybody can make it through another injury like this, Kayla can. When they make players like Kayla, they throw away the mold because there are not a lot like her. We are expecting her to come back even stronger and with a brand new body, so she will be as good as ever."
With each game the Gophers play in 2011-12, fans can expect to see talent, heart, hustle, determination and passion from Borton's squad, and with that combination, the Gopher faithful will not be disappointed.
"When that buzzer goes off, win or lose, we are going to have left everything out on the floor," Borton said. "We are going to play not only for each other, but for our fans as well this year. We want to be a team that represents Minnesota with what we do on the court."