It was a tough opening campaign for first-year head coach Bobbie Kelsey, but fans can rest assured the best is yet to come for the Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
As the Badgers’ season came to a premature close in an 81-49 loss to Minnesota Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, it was hard not to feel a tantalizing sense of what awaits UW next season and beyond. Despite finishing the year at 9-20 and tied for ninth in the Big Ten, reaching the NCAA Tournament isn’t a long-term project for Kelsey’s young squad — don’t be surprised if Wisconsin finds itself dancing next March.
Just like she was this season, guard Taylor Wurtz will serve as the proverbial key that jumpstarts the Badgers’ offense. After putting up a team-leading 16.1 points per contest as a junior, the Third Team All-Big Ten selection (who deserved a spot on the first or second team) flourished in Kelsey’s fast-paced offense and should develop into a true star in her final season on the hardwood.
Also leading the team on the glass with a team-high 7.6 rebounds per game, Wurtz has the athleticism to be a double-double threat every night and should record the first triple-doubles of her career as a senior. Every Big Ten title contender needs a star, and the dynamic shooting guard will gladly take on that role next season.
Aiding Wurtz in a backcourt loaded with talent is guard Morgan Paige, who in her first year as an everyday starter posted 10 points per game. Although, like her older counterpart, Paige can catch fire from the outside, her most valuable skill is her willingness to attack the rim. The sophomore showed her ability to take over a game in a 29-point performance late this season against Illinois, a game in which she sunk all 11 of her free throws. As the Marion, Iowa, native continues to grow more comfortable fighting her way through the lane, she and Wurtz will power Wisconsin on the offensive end.
With plenty of talent at the guard spot, the major question surrounding next year’s squad is an apparent lack of a proven post scorer. Though an understandable reason for concern — UW is losing both Anya Covington and Ashley Thomas, who were both starting forwards this year — there is no shortage of post players with tremendous upside on Kelsey’s roster. And perhaps the single most critical ingredient to a NCAA tourney appearance next year exists in 6-foot-4 forward/center Cassie Rochel.
Rochel, a player just beginning to understand how to use her height around the basket, never developed into a reliable scorer in Kelsey’s first year at the helm. Seeing the court an average of 15.8 minutes per contest, the sophomore scored only 4.3 points per game. Promising, however, is that Rochel played her best ball when Wisconsin’s most dominant post player in Covington was sidelined. The former Minnesota Miss Basketball winner admitted she felt more confident in her game when forced to step in for the senior, and coaches are hoping that attitude will carry over in Rochel’s third year on the floor.
It’s difficult to predict how much Rochel will add to her arsenal of post moves this offseason, but she proved in 2010-11 that she has the ball skills and shot-making ability (51.1 percent on the year) to be a double-double threat every night. If Rochel can find the confidence to shoot fire off open looks and display a greater sense of urgency on the glass, she can not only fill Covington’s void but also transform into a more dangerous scorer than her predecessor.
Outside of Madison’s very own rendition of the “Big Three,” Kelsey will be counting on a freshman duo that saw significant playing time in their first year suiting up for the cardinal and white. Lacia Gorman, a natural point guard who may find herself in a starting role next fall, won’t be counted on to score, allowing her to refine her role as a distributor. Lining up alongside two other impressive scorers, Gorman’s ball security should cut down on the 17.2 turnovers per game Wisconsin averaged this year.
The other freshman Wisconsin will need to step up is 6-foot-1 Jacki Gulczynski, who has yet to prove herself a reliable scorer but is the type of athletic, hybrid-guard forward that is a perfect fit for Kelsey’s high-motor system.
It may seem like too much of a “perfect storm” for all these factors to mold into a successful, tournament-bound squad next year. But with three seniors absent, underclassmen are ready for their long-awaited time in the spotlight and will be fully adjusted to their young coach’s playing style.
For a Wisconsin program that has only appeared in just one NCAA tournament in the past decade, fans are still hungry for a nationally relevant program. Averaging between 7,000 and 10,000 fans per game in the late 1990s and early 2000s, students, alumni and other Badger backers have made it clear they aren’t only loyal to the men’s squad.
If this team can contend for a conference title and simply return to March Madness, the Kohl Center will soon be notable for more than men’s basketball and hockey. The tools are present, and with Kelsey’s dedication to rebuilding the Wisconsin women’s basketball program, it won’t be long before the team is stirring up excitement across campus.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think the Badgers will fare better now that Kelsey has a year of head coaching experience under her belt? Let him know by emailing email@example.com.