Not every college basketball program likes the idea of a tough non-conference schedule, but teams with serious aspirations for the postseason know you better get some early tests if you want to have answers for March Madness.
Two teams making their debut in the Preseason WNIT - Tennessee State and UT Arlington - will face more well-known competition when the event fires up Nov. 13. But both programs are feeling confident after posting some signature victories in 2014-15, and are expected to kick up a little dust by the time their three games in the WNIT are finished.
TENNESSEE STATE: The Lady Tigers aren’t living in the past, but then again, memories of their overtime win against UT Martin in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament final are still driving the heartbeat of the roster.
And why not? That put Tennessee State into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years and signified the rebuilding skills of coach Larry Joe Inman were as sharp as ever. Inman became one of 10 coaches to take three programs to the NCAA tourney (previous stints were at Middle Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky), and the Lady Tigers were in sore need of that certain touch.
“First thing, we had to teach the team how to win and not settle for mediocrity,” said Inman, seeing how the program had just one winning season in the previous 17 years. “I’ll never forget after that first year; we won 10 games, and they were ready to party! They were ecstatic about it, and I guess it was a stepping stone.
“The greatest thing about last year was, we persevered through some tough times. They had the confidence they could win it all (in the OVC tourney), and they’re determined to do it again. These players want to uphold that tradition now; you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t hold up your end of the bargain. They want another ring and to do great things.”
Although the pace Inman prefers will lead to some turnover clusters, he’s got a team that otherwise thrives at a higher tempo. Junior forward I’mani Davis is a springy 6-footer who guards them all, short guards to hefty post players, and she’ll be asked to provide more consistent offense while chasing down the important rebounds. Senior guard Brianna Lawrence was the OVC tourney’s MVP and is clever with ball as well as a dynamite defender.
“They get the toughest defensive assignments every night, and our defense dictates how we play,” said Inman, whose team was 18-13 last season and lost to Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “We led the conference in steals, and I’m proud of what we did defensively. I feel the offense will take care of itself.”
Jayda Johnson, a 6-foot junior forward, played in all 31 games last season and should comfortably fill one of the vacancies on the front line. The Lady Tigers will also look to sophomore Markayla Parker for some depth at guard and forward.
Three freshmen should get a chance to contribute - 6-5 center Tyesha Hood, 5-9 guard Asia Sims and 5-8 guard Naomi Bolasingh.
Inman said there’s plenty of tenacity in the air, with the Lady Tigers picked to finish only fifth in the preseason OVC poll, and having no players named to either the first or second team in the all-OVC balloting.
“When I want to motivate them, I say, ‘Well you’re just the fifth-best team in the league, so there’s no reason to do it right,’” Inman said. “We’ve been competitive the past two years, we play a tough early schedule, and for them not to respect you is a little disheartening. It gets to me a bit, as an old coach.”
Tennessee State will play at Indiana in the first round of the WNIT.
UT ARLINGTON: The Lady Mavs were a modest 4-25 overall in 2013-14, the first year under head coach Krista Gerlich, but she reset the roster with 12 new players and saw her team catch on fast by improving to a 17-13 record last season. UT Arlington won eight of its last 11 games on the slate and gave the upper-division teams in the Sun Belt Conference such as Texas State and Arkansas State a scare or two with some close finishes.
Sophomore center Rebekah VanDijk had a breakout debut, earning the league’s Freshman of the Year honor with 15 double-doubles. She averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, impressing observers with her ability to get up and down the floor. She and the other four starters during the stretch run of 2014-15 are back, providing a welcomed sense of continuity.
"The kids have done a good job of putting themselves in the mix," Gerlich said about the season. "I think it is about experience, and we were in a bunch of games where we could have won, but the other team had veteran players and refused to lose. We had four kids that had played in a Division I basketball game before this year, and they just didn't know what to expect physically and didn't have the mental toughness you have to have.
"I think that we were really close, and I was really pleased with how close we were.”
Sophomore guard Cierra Johnson was the fresh-faced spark in the backcourt, scoring about nine points per game and coming away with 81 steals. Another key contributor is senior guard LaShanda Green, who had a terrific assist-to-turnover ratio and was the team’s best 3-point shooter by a wide margin.
More punch from long range is a key in the modern college game, and Gerlich has brought in two players who profile as talented shooters — SMU transfer Kamy Cole and and JUCO transfer Breck Clark.
If the Lady Mavs can get some balance and provide threats around the lineup, teams won’t be able to lean so heavily on VanDijk, who is sure to be a focal point of defenses after that stellar freshman campaign.
“More than anything because of the type of kid Rebekah is, she's going to really have to guard against putting that pressure on herself,” Gerlich said. “She's such a perfectionist and wants to do everything exactly right when we're coaching her, and we've already seen a little bit of that in the preseason of her putting a little too much pressure on herself and not being as productive as she'd like to be. So I think she's going to have to guard against her own self more than anything. But she has such a great work ethic, and her teammates really love her that I feel like that she's going to really succeed no matter what.”
UT Arlington will plat at Baylor in the first round of the WNIT.