Women's Basketball 2011
Expectations are higher than they've ever been for the Rice women's basketball team this season. After a surprising 18-13 regular season and a berth in the Women's National Invitational Tournament during the 2010- 2011 campaign, Head Coach Greg Williams (Hanszen '70) finds himself in the unfamiliar position of leading a team that is going to compete for a Conference USA title.
"Last season, we weren't sure what we had," Williams said. "Now, on paper, we're number two in the conference. It's totally different. The expectations are big going into the season."
With four returning starters from the team that had so much success, the team has been picked to finish second in the C-USA preseason coaches' poll. Sophomore forward Jessica Kuster, who had a breakout season and was named Freshman of the Year, was selected to the preseason C-USA team and is expected to lead the Owls in scoring this season.
Senior forward Brianna Hypolite, who averaged double digits in scoring last season, will continue to play a huge offensive role. Also coming back are senior point guard D'Frantz Smart and junior shooting guard Jessica Goswitz, one of the best backcourt combinations in C-USA.
In his seventh season at his alma mater, Williams has engineered a pretty remarkable turnaround in a program that struggled the previous few seasons. The former three-year letterman with the Rice men's basketball team hopes that he is continuing to build a program that can compete with the growing athleticism inside C-USA. He so far has taken three teams to the WNIT, but he has yet to notch an NCAA tournament team.
His assistants include Kim Mbadinga- Nzamba, in her seventh season at Rice; Rebecca Taylor, in her fourth season at Rice; and Jae Cross, in her second season as assistant coach after serving two years as director of basketball operations.
Led by the veteran tandem of Smart and Goswitz, the Owls know what they are going to get this season: reliable, consistent play out of the guards.
Smart, the vocal leader of the team, has always shown flashes of brilliance during her career and is looking to have a season-changing performance her senior year. Smart set a Rice season record with 189 assists last year while averaging six points a game. While her scoring production has gone down since her freshman season, this is mostly due to her increased ability to pass the ball off to the open player.
"I know I'm the leader of this team," Smart said. "I'm the senior point guard. I'll take the responsibility. When we do well, it's on me, and if things are going poorly, it'll be on me."
Goswitz, who plays the two-guard and occasionally takes time handling the ball when Smart is off the floor, is probably the Owls' most dangerous outside shooter, averaging over 30 percent from three over her career. She averaged 7.8 points per game last season, adding a spark to the offense in a lot of set situations.
Coming off the bench will be senior Amenemope McKinney, who has the size at 5 feet 7 inches to match up with some of the larger guards in the league. A strong defensive player, McKinney came on strong in the closing games of the season and became a regular inside the rotation. Sophomore Brittany Carter, who saw occasional time last year, will also fight for minutes.
Also in the mix will be freshman Maya Adetula, a taller shooter; and Reem Moussa, who played on Egypt's Under-19 national squad this summer.
Kuster has the possibility of being a very special player. The 6'2" sophomore captured every single honor last year: Freshman of the year, All C-USA First Team, All C-USA Freshman Team, All C-USA Defensive Team, and C-USA Freshman of the Week for 11 of 17 weeks. She was only the second freshman in the history of C-USA to be named first team All-Conference.
"To come in and do what she (Kuster) did last year was unpredictable," Williams said. "Jessica is a player that wants to get better and is motivated herself. It helps the staff when our best player is one of our hardest workers."
Kuster, who led the team in scoring (14.1 points per game) and rebounds (10.6 rebounds per game), was the driving force behind the Owls' success last season. The team has to avoid a sophomore slump with Kuster, otherwise it will be difficult for it to meet its goal on an NCAA tournament berth. She contributed so much to the team's scoring last season that it will be difficult to win games without her leading the offense.
Also look for Hypolite to have a huge final season. She averaged over 11 points per game last season, combining with Kuster for most of the Owls' scoring. She started every game and will be a huge piece of the offense. Hypolite, who will be in the running for All C-USA honors, is another important player the Owls need to perform at the same level as last year.
Coming off the bench at the forward position will be junior Zoe Rogers, who saw limited minutes in 10 games last year. Also look for freshmen Nakachi Maduka, Christal Porter and Megan Shafer to fight for minutes this season.
Senior Candace Ashford will most likely open the season at center, with junior Opal Taskila out due to a back injury for the time being. Depth in the post will be one of the battles the Owls face this season, as they would definitely be considered a more athletic team as opposed to one with size. For this team to succeed, injuries cannot plague the talent that they do have inside the post – a major concern for the Owls.
Ashford, who started 10 games last season, provided some needed height in the post for the Owls. Look for both players to contribute this season after Taskila comes back, with Williams looking to provide some height to help Kuster in the post. Ashford averaged three points per game in her appearances last season.
The Owls have a pretty easy opening few weeks, with their only difficult contest against Big Twelve opponent Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. They will then take a trip to Chicago, the hometown of D'Frantz Smart.
The Gene Hackerman Invitational, held at Rice on the second and third of December could potentially pit the Owls against Oregon State University. One more swing through Texas over winter recess will finish off the non-conference schedule. The C-USA schedule opens on Jan. 5, with an away game at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. By and large, the Owls play a fairly easy non-conference schedule, leaving themselves an opportunity to have a great record heading into conference play.
Key conference games include an away game at Houston on Jan. 28, the home game against the University of Houston on Feb. 23, and the season finale home game against the former conference champion, the University of Memphis.
The Owls are poised for success this season and have the talent and leadership to take the team to the next level. Anything less than a top finish inside C-USA and a possible postseason berth will be a huge let down for a team that is bringing back so much from last year.
"The next step is obviously to make the NCAA tournament," Kuster said. "We have a senior class that's had a pretty dramatic ride.
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