With a new coach and few proven scorers, unanswered questions surround the Wisconsin women’s basketball team as it prepares to kick off its regular season Friday against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
With the team’s top three scorers gone in the dominant trio of Alyssa Karel, Lin Zastrow and Tara Steinbauer and the arrival of Bobbie Kelsey to replace Lisa Stone, this year’s team shows little resemblance to the squad that fell in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. After losing more than 60 percent of their scoring, it’s unclear exactly who will lead Wisconsin on the hardwood this year.
While there is no clear leader on the offensive side of the ball, junior guard Taylor Wurtz looks ready to be one of UW’s top scorers in 2011. A starter last year who often hit double figures and averaged 8.3 points per, Wurtz was named a captain – along with seniors Anya Covington and Ashley Thomas – and should power the Badgers’ backcourt.
Though Wurtz could be one of Wisconsin’s primary scoring threats, the team is adopting a new approach under Kelsey that spreads the scoring by encouraging everyone on the court to fire off shots when they have open looks.
“All of us can score, and I think people will definitely be … kind of surprised by the way we come out this year,” sophomore forward Cassie Rochel said. “People are really going to step up – all of us are capable of scoring; now we’re going to have to step up and prove that to other teams.”
In addition to Wurtz, senior post threats Thomas and Covington will form the foundation of the UW offense. Covington, a dominating rebounder and post presence who showed her ability to score with 16 points against Butler in last season’s WNIT, should help fill the void inside left by Zastrow and Steinbauer.
Thomas, a player who averaged just eight minutes per game in the 2010-11 season, appears to be assuming a much greater offensive role under Kelsey. Putting up an impressive 17 points in the Badgers’ preseason opener against UW-Whitewater, Thomas epitomizes the new coach’s commitment to giving everyone an opportunity.
After struggling through much of the non-conference season last year, including a stretch of seven straight losses, Kelsey is confident her up-tempo system will make for better results against the Badgers’ nonconference foes.
“Obviously my style is very different from coach Stone’s, so I think that in and of itself will lend us to improve in our nonconference,” Kelsey said. “Nonconference is hard because you don’t see these people but one time, but it gives you a tournament feel because … you’ve got one shot at them.”
Though Kelsey and co. seem anxious to surprise the critics who left Wisconsin out of their preseason predictions for the Big Ten, there will certainly be an adjustment period for UW. With new leadership, a much different system and the loss of their three best players, Wisconsin will certainly take time to acclimate to the wide range of changes.
As players face the major challenges of learning a new system with a different coaching style, it is no longer just the freshmen who have a lot to learn. Though veterans such as Covington and Thomas serve as vocal leaders for the Badgers, Kelsey’s arrival has all the players facing many of the same challenges
“In this instance, it’s kind of unique, because we’re all learning, we’re all new to the coaching staff and the coaching system,” sophomore guard Morgan Paige said. “… It’s all a learning experience at this point, and we’re all working on it together.”
While older players may lead Kelsey’s offense in the 2011-12 season, the coaching staff is also counting on their less experienced teammates to step up. Paige, a guard who saw significant playing time last year when the standout point guard Karel was injured, will direct UW’s offense this season.
Joining Paige is another sophomore in Rochel, a towering 6-foot-4 forward/center who could have a breakout season. Showing flashes of brilliance last year, including a 10-point performance against Ohio State that displayed her true potential, Rochel should vie for serious playing time alongside Covington and Thomas.
“Cassie’s been playing really well in practice and … our strength and conditioning coach really worked on getting her stronger, and I think she’s going to make a big difference this year,” Wurtz said.
With another tough nonconference schedule on the horizon, the Badgers will quickly find out how quickly they can adopt their new coach’s style. Though there is no clear leader on the offensive side of the ball, there is also no shortage of excitement among the players and coaching staff as the season approaches.
Despite major questions facing the program in Kelsey’s inaugural campaign, one thing is clear in the locker room: The Badgers have bought in.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that they are hungry to improve,” Kelsey said. “No one has a crystal ball to say how we’re going to do this year, but I know one thing, they have drastically improved since the first couple workouts. They’ve always been coachable, from day one.”