Losing two talented starters to graduation and a head coach of four years would leave a lot of teams confused and directionless. But, with two UAA Rookies of the Year taking charge of a brand-new, wide-open offensive game plan, women's basketball has no interest in looking backward at last year's 10-15 season. Instead they're taking this year head-on, starting in Saturday's home opener in the Midway Classic.
After former head coach Jennifer Kroll shocked her team and colleagues with her sudden resignation on October 1, newly signed assistant Aaron Roussell hit the ground running, devising a pound-it-inside, free-form offense to take advantage of the team's speed. His frequent 9 p.m. nights of preparation and five weeks of intense and sometimes frustrating practices have this team excited and ready to take on the competition.
"I want to see how we respond in a game situation," Roussell said. "My goal hasn't changed since the day I took the job: Our goal is to win tomorrow. I told the players that we've practiced five weeks for Saturday. I know there are 24 games after that, but we'll tackle those 24 when they come."
Roussell's game plan focuses on establishing the fast break and getting the defense to fall back on its heels. By spacing the floor and constantly having players break open, the offense hopes to play much less predictably.
That style should benefit third-year power forward Susie Gutowski, for whom, according to Roussell, "the sky's the limit, this year and even more so next year." She averaged 10.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game last year, and her .487 shooting percentage led all starters. To maximize pressure inside, the guards have been taught to look to her in the post every time they have the ball.
The team's two speedy guards, third-year Janae Winner (7.3 ppg, 2.2 apg) and second-year Korry Schwanz (11.4, 2.64), should also take advantage of the new scheme.
"They're skilled players that really understand basketball," Roussell said of the team's core. "With this new system, you need to be a really smart basketball player to get it. Not to say the rest of the team hasn't, but those three have really good basketball backgrounds. They've really stood out."
"It's definitely the right kind of offense for us," Gutowski, the 2002-03 UAA Rookie of the Year and a second-team All-UAA selection last year, said. "Right now we look pretty good, but we're going to look really good when we really get comfortable with things and it becomes second nature."
The demanding individual requirements may keep the offense from flourishing early, as indicated by the preseason's mixed results. Although the Maroons blew out St. Mary's last week with a .580 shooting percentage, the offense committed a high number of turnovers, largely from incorrectly anticipating each other's movement. Furthermore, defensive help still hasn't been perfected in the mostly man-to-man scheme.
Rebounding is another concern for the team, which won't match up height-wise to many opponents. In order to mitigate that weakness, Roussell has stressed toughness on the boards and aggressiveness from the guards.
"We don't have the height, and since we're fastbreaking, we have to make sure we are securing the rebound before we run down court," Winner said.
Rebounding likely won't be the team's biggest concern Saturday against Northland, which also has a smaller roster that depends on guards rebounding. Their lineup will likely match Chicago in terms of speed and defensive toughness.
The Maroons, however, have their eyes set on proving that the last month of work was not just a learning process, but was productive for some real improvement. They see no better opportunity than this weekend, hosting a tournament that the team hasn't won with any of the current players.
"It's sort of embarrassing for us given that it's our only home tournament," Winner said. "The incentive to win is definitely there along with the fact that we've been practicing so long without playing a game. We're ready to beat up on someone else besides each other.
"We all expect that we will win, and I think that this attitude has been a big difference for us already. Coach Roussell has hammered it in our heads that we will win this year."