Photo by JC Ridley/Miami Athletics
There’s plenty of tough traffic to navigate for Miami head coach Katie Meier and her Hurricanes squad, as that’s the price of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference this day and age.
But there’s a gnarled, snarled stretch of road at the end that’s already got Miami’s attention – not because the team is looking too far ahead, but because their goals require surviving that cluster of chaos.
“It could be harder to get to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament than it would be to get to the Final Four. I mean, you’re going to run into a (national) No. 1 or 2 seed in the ACC because (of the) bye,” said Meier, referencing the early respect for ACC powers including Notre Dame (the defending NCAA champions) and Louisville (a Final Four team last March). “You might be able to get to the Final Four playing a 3 or 4, if things go your way. That’s quite daunting.”
Of course, don’t rule out Miami from being a scary obstacle by then. The Hurricanes are a preseason Top 25 selection and have reached the NCAA Tournament in seven of the past eight years, breaking down opponents with a tireless defense and a roster with just two seniors and thus room to grow.
Miami starts its run in the 2019 Preseason WNIT on Friday, Nov. 9 at home against Stephen F. Austin.
“It’s an honor to play in (the WNIT). We’ve got a really nice squad, and I like our mix of talent,” said Meier, whose team will likely play slower this year, a function of having some impressive options in the post and a hope to cut down on mistakes. “We had to cause turnovers, and when you play recklessly you’re going to have more turnovers as well. Our three seniors were very fast and very athletic, long and rangy defenders, and they’ve been replaced with some length, but not as much speed. We’re going to look inside; I think we have two pros there, so we have to be smart about how recklessly we play.”
That means plenty of touches for senior Emese Hof and junior redshirt Beatrice Mompremier. Hof shot better than 50 percent from the field last year and was 14-of-15 from the field in the team’s exhibition win over Nova Southeastern; Mompremier sat out last year after transferring from Baylor, where she played 32 games as a sophomore. Look for some new faces to add depth near the rim, and the Hurricanes are hoping for a quick return to the floor for senior Khaila Prather, who missed last year with a knee injury and had a slight setback right at the start of November this year.
In the backcourt, sophomore guards Endia Banks and Mykea Gray will be asked to steer the action the right direction, but with superior work as freshmen already in the books, Miami should be just fine. Banks started all 32 games and led the team in assists, and Gray is the top returning scorer (11.7 ppg) who joins sophomore guard Kelsey Marshall as the top 3-point threats for the offense.
Gray’s challenge for 2018-19 is deploying her speed advantage in the right moments, cashing in when early offense presents itself without missing chances to work the ball inside as per Meier’s wishes.
“Last year we didn’t have two posts in at the same time very often; with the skills we have this year, you have to get them the ball. The plan is to feed them the ball and let them go to work,” Gray said. “In practice, you’ve got to work on the spacing and where everyone should be, and I think we’ve got that down pat.”
“All these sophomore guards had that Miami mindset from the start; Mykea was probably the most in terms of playing downhill. She makes a decision and goes with it,” Meier said. “She doesn’t doubt herself, and the kid who doesn’t play well for me is one who can’t make decisions. I was on the edge of my seat in the recruiting process for her, thinking I saw something other people didn’t to go with the schools who did see it and were fighting me just as hard.”
Gray said her freshman year was eye-opening, both in terms of what she could do and how often she had to pull it off against extremely difficult competition. This year won’t look much different, with ACC foes Syracuse, NC State and Duke all earning Top 25 praise in the preseason and all capable of complicating the path in the ACC Tournament.
“My freshman run, I was nervous to be honest. But Coach told me to play my game, so I trusted they were putting me on the right path,” Gray added. “If I had a good game, or if I didn’t, I’d focus on doing the little things and being myself. I don’t talk too much before a game, but in my own head I try to build up as much confidence as possible, because you are playing big-time players who have big-time games. Just go out and show people you belong on the court with them.”
Ultimately, Miami will be wrestling with a lot – the toughest conference in the nation, and a couple of recent early exits from the NCAA Tournament, or at least some poorly timed dips in execution that have kept the program from making that next big leap.
“Those are awesome assumptions that we should be talking about playing in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament before we even tip … that’s a goal, but it’s not assumed,” Meier added. “The last two draws have been tough, and you have to play your way into a better scenario. That’s what the regular season is all about.”