No matter the numbers she put up or the attention she drew on the basketball court, Bria Holmes never totally understood the shadow she cast upon the opposition.
Winning a ton of games in high school and drawing the recruiting eye of the nation’s top programs certainly gave Holmes a clue, but it’s taken a couple of seasons at West Virginia and time in the film room for her to gain that broader perspective.
The tale of the tape says this much – a 6-foot-1 guard with killer instincts and superb body control is going to be useful. Holmes earned all-Big 12 first-team honors in 2013-14 as a sophomore by averaging better than 15 points per game for the Mountaineers, and she’s already moving up in profile by being named the preseason Big 12 player of the year.
With Holmes at the helm, West Virginia is planning on a quick bounce-back after last year’s upset loss to LSU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers had a good thing cooking before the abrupt finish, going 30-5 overall and claiming a No. 2 seed after earning a share of the Big 12 conference title.
Holmes was hotly recruited by the likes of Rutgers and Connecticut, and the ebbs and flows of that process were picked apart in the local media and internet message boards. As she prepares for another year of being her team’s focal point, Holmes is a bit more at peace.
“I really never knew how good I could be. I never watched film in high school, and I never saw what others saw,” she said. “Now, I can see what I’m capable of doing. It’s a little easier (than the recruiting grind), but not a lot easier. I still feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me to prove people were right. I will just have to have confidence in myself, not add to the pressure, and just play basketball the way I can.”
West Virginia will need Holmes at her sharpest, but with the exit of five seniors and a comparatively thin roster of 10 players, there’s much more for head coach Mike Carey to nurture and monitor. It’s enough to make a guy bolt up in the middle of the night, fretting over all that needs to be done.
“That just didn’t happen in the summer – it happened last night, too,” joked Carey, last year’s Big 12 coach of the year and who has guided the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament in eight of the past 11 seasons. “Everything is on the learning curve, and we can’t go too fast. I’m the type of coach who says, if we’re not doing something well, we’re not going to go forward until we fix it. We look good for two minutes, then for two minutes like we don’t know what we’re doing.
“The people who are back will need to step it up and make plays. We’re a little short-handed, but I’ve had teams with eight players that won 20 games, so it can be done.”
As Holmes prepares for her own expanded role, it’s the same priority for the other returners. Linda Stepney will be starting at point guard for the fourth season; fellow senior Averee Fields must build upon her natural gifts as a rebounder; and senior Crystal Leary hopes to be a reliable offensive presence after topping 50 percent as a shooter last season.
“Just how hard the seniors worked last year, the leadership they showed, is something I do reference with this team,” Carey said. “You can’t beat experience. Linda has the most experience of anybody; we need her to set the tone defensively, to be at that level at all times, and we’ll need her to score more. We don’t have the scorers we had last year.”
Will Holmes find a way to approach the 20-points-per-game threshold while guiding the retooled roster in a tough conference? It’s a lot to ask, but Holmes prefers doing the work to keep the Mountaineers from slogging through the classic “rebuilding” year. She said she spent a lot of the summer working through the upset loss to LSU and then fortifying her ball-handling skills and shooting off her dribble.
“Last year, losing in the second round was a big downfall, and it took a while to get over it. It’s a lesson learned, that we have to come out and play 10 times harder,” Holmes said. “Coach wants me to be more vocal, without getting too frustrated, so I’m going to express my feelings.”
By Kyle Koso
Sometimes, a college basketball program can provide good theater for its supporters.
For the Colorado women’s team, there’s already been a fair bit of drama and a bunch of improvising, the inevitable result of a key player going down with an injury before the first formal day of fall practice. The Buffaloes aren’t acting like it’s an easy problem to solve, but they also figure no one will be standing in line when it comes to offering sympathy.
The simple fact is, junior Arielle Roberson tore the ACL in her left knee during routine drills in early October, stripping Colorado of a critical option in its attack. Roberson, the Pac-12 freshmen of the year in 2012-13, averaged 12.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season and kept things steady when other players were shelved with injuries. Colorado hopes the return to health of some players can ease the pain of Roberson’s setback.
"When a player like Arielle goes down, folks start licking their chops. An injury can demoralize you, or you can get tougher and play more inspired," said CU coach Linda Lappe, whose team was 19-15 last year and reached the third round of the Postseason WNIT. "It can bring you together – we are focusing on building a team from the ground up on offense and defense, like we are every year. Our younger kids are getting a lot of reps, and we have time to tweak things.
"Arielle has a special competitive fire and tenacity that’s hard to replace. She sat her freshman year because of injury, so she never took playing time for granted. Those are things that are controllable, in that other players can show those intangibles."
The rotation required to solve Roberson’s absence will surely include Jasmine Sborov (a 5-11 senior guard) and Jen Reese (a 6-2 senior forward), both of whom missed time last year. Sborov has a nose for rebounding from the backcourt and gives CU a desperately needed asset as a 3-point shooter; Reese came through to the tune of 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game and will certainly be looking to build on those achievements.
"Man, it was a huge shocker. We were happy to have everyone healthy, and then it happened," said Sborov, who missed 20 games with a broken bone in her right foot. "It’s a huge loss for us, but we’ve regrouped and we are working hard to encourage the younger players. Right now, we’re playing and fighting for her, and I for sure understand the feeling.
"We are focusing on what we can control. When I was hurt, I didn’t like being in that position, but I became a better leader and student of the game. It opened my eyes to what I don’t always see when I’m on the floor. It’s a coach’s perspective, and it’s all made me super hungry."
Reese brings a significant edge in terms of her hoops I.Q. and is not the type to get rattled during the long grind of the season. As roles and strengths are re-defined with Roberson out, Reese will be asked to do plenty.
"I don’t like to force things, but I do see that I’m going to have to score more," Reese said. "At the same time, we’ll have different players scoring from different spots. We are just focusing on (today); we’ve got to build that chemistry and work to get to the point where we can be great during the season."
A look at the 2013-14 numbers reveals one other area of concern for the Buffs, who in the wide-open Pac-12 shot just under 30 percent from 3-point range as a team. Empty possessions and long rebounds hauled in by the opposition can make it hard to control matters.
"That (shooting percentage) was very low, and part of that was because our inside game was not effective enough on the block. Some of our posts were scoring from more like 15 feet out, or through the motion offense," Lappe said. "If you are strong in the paint, shooters can get their shots easier than having to run off screens all the time or shooting contested 3’s. Another thing is players just getting into the gym more and taking shots at game speed. Our (percentage) should be better this year.
"Our overall strength is our strength – we looked great in the weight room in the offseason. We are very tough down low, and we are long this year, too. We’ve got 6-1, 6-2 guards with long arms who can cover a lot of space."
The ink isn’t quite dry on the new script, but CU still likes what it can do onstage.
By Kyle Koso
Through her program’s march in winning three consecutive Big Ten women’s basketball titles, Coquese Washington has typically known in advance how her Penn State squad will respond under pressure.
For the early stages of the 2014-15 season, however, Washington might not decipher how the Lady Lions are equipped any sooner than someone watching on TV back at home. Penn State is in the middle of a reset this time around, certainly with skilled players and a confidence-boosting tradition but without the comfort that only comes when a seasoned roster takes the court.
What the Lady Lions surely grasp is last year’s core group of four seniors is gone – Maggie Lucas and Ariel Edwards are both in the WNBA – and there’s just one senior on hand now. This is a team that plays uptempo and will do so even if it takes time to get in rhythm.
“I’ve had the wonderful privilege of working with a coaching group that has been highly successful, like Russ Rose (6-time NCAA D-I champion volleyball coach), and Russ told me you don’t lower your standards because a team is young or inexperienced. His advice is to keep the standards high and work to help them get there,” said Washington, whose team went 24-8 last year and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. “What does change is how we get there. I’m more focused on us establishing what our identity will be. We want to play fast, and we’ve beaten it to death how important it is to put points on the board, but how we do it is a work in progress.”
Senior Tori Waldner did start every game last year, and at 6-foot-5 is a place to turn for points in the halfcourt. But no one older than a sophomore is expected to see time at point guard, and it seems likely there will be pros and cons to that situation. When asked if she’d carefully ease players into the game-day fray or would force-feed the newcomers, Washington proposed a little of both.
“This is very reminiscent of the group we had a few years ago. They came in as freshmen, and we threw them into the fire and made them learn on the job,” Washington said. “We knew they would make mistakes and that there would be challenges, but we knew they’d grow. What we have to do is make sure (this group) will get a ton of experience.”
One of the more intriguing fresh faces is redshirt sophomore Sierra Moore, a 5-11 guard who was a national top-50 recruit out of high school who signed to play at Duke. After the Blue Devils needed to revisit some position needs because of injuries, Moore was put in the frontcourt and swiftly understood it was not going to be a good fit.
After sitting out a year, Moore’s enthusiastic return to the floor comes just as Penn State needs options in this era of transition.
“It was eye-opening, with all the veterans gone and just one senior back. I was sitting out, but I knew I had to have a big impact for the team, so I was really excited,” Moore said. “I know I’m practicing to play now, to make my team better. Last year wasn’t a loss, but it’s comforting to know I will be playing that first game on (Nov. 14).
“Having a year to work on my shot was really good. At Duke, I didn’t have the time to work on my shot because I was doing more at the post. I had some lows with my shooting, but it’s a confidence thing, and I’m getting it back. I know I had that jumper before.”
Moore’s ability to survive and thrive in the transfer process may give the Lady Lions another boost down the line once Brianna Banks is eligible to suit up. Banks, a 5-9 senior guard, transferred after three seasons at Connecticut and will add some savvy to Penn State lineup come next season.
“We have a great relationship, and she’ll fit right in,” Moore said of Banks. “She plays with intensity on defense and brings a lot of athleticism to us. I can’t wait to play with her next year.”
“Tension doesn’t linger (between coaches); I see anything to do with transfers as private business,” Washington added. “I worked with a UConn assistant this summer, and we had a great conversation about Brianna. We all understand things don’t work out sometimes, and it’s not really anyone’s fault. You have to find a place that fits. I think most coaches are supportive of each other, when we’re not trying to beat each other’s brains out on the floor.”
How Penn State ultimately works through these mysteries is just one topic of interest in the Big Ten Conference. Maryland and Rutgers have joined the Big Ten; Michigan State has three starters back from a team that won 13 league games last year; and Minnesota has some sturdy talent back as well.
“There’s a lot to learn for everyone, and we have to develop as a team on the court – we almost have it,” Moore said. “We want to win the Big Ten again, but we know we’ll have to work hard at it – I feel like we could very well be a team that peaks at the end.”
“We are an unknown quantity in the conference. No one knows what to expect, and we’re not worried about anything outside of us,” Washington added. “The season is long, and what matters is March and April. We’re not getting fired up about Big Ten predictions – we’ve always had the same approach.”