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Women's basketball 2009: Youthful squad looks to new maturity to break into C-USA elite after last season's mighty struggles

By Teddy Grodek     11/12/09 6:00pm

After last season's hardships, this fresh season gives the women's basketball team the opportunity to redeem themselves. During what many would label as a rebuilding season, the Owls are hoping to reap the riches of their hard work on the hardwood and turn that into success for the upcoming season. Rice is a particularly young team inside Conference USA and will need everyone, including a glut of sophomores, to fill the leadership void on the floor. Any team member with experience has the knowledge necessary to mentor and develop the several young players, or so the idea goes.

Last season, the team was laden with freshmen on a roster experiencing growing pains, resulting in a disappointing 7-23 record. The Owls struggled to counter their respectable outside shooting with a post presence, which allowed opponents to clamp down on the perimeter. Coupled with their inability to maintain leads late in games, Rice endured a difficult season filled with heartbreak and frustration.

Head Coach Greg Williams (Hanszen '73) hopes to turn that all around this season. Coming into his fifth season as Owls' head coach, his 16th in collegiate coaching, Williams brings a plethora of basketball knowledge to help develop the young Owls' considerable potential.

Developing maturity

With spotty performances seeming to be the theme last year, Rice's developing maturity will hopefully result in a more consistent night-in-night-out play. For the team to excel this year, the women will need to develop a stronger post game, allowing the shooters time to set up and find open looks. Leaders will need to develop and become more vocal, helping ramp up the team's performance in high pressure situations.

Sophomore Guard D'Frantz Smart may be one of the leading candidates for such a leadership role. After starting 26 games last year, Smart became the leading scorer among freshman in Conference USA, averaging 10.8 points per game. She also led the team in assists (119) and the conference in steals (70). With a year of experience under her belt, Smart should have the confidence necessary to take the ball to the hoop and utilize her improved decision-making to its fullest capacity.

The coaches are hoping that the five-foot-tall Smart can emerge as a leader this season, a void that has plagued the team for the past few seasons. Smart was named as a captain recently by her peers and has embraced her leadership role.

"Any point guard should try and establish a leadership role within a team," Smart said. "Especially because I'm not a freshman anymore, it's extra important to try and establish a leadership role."

Senior Tara Watts also aims to bring her experience and leadership, as well as her outside shooting abilities, to the team. Watts started in all 30 games last season, leading the team in three-point field goals (39) as the purest shooter on the team. However, Watts struggled at times last season, consistently drawing coverage and struggling to find open looks.

Sophomore Candace Ashford and junior transfer Jackie Stanley will look to solidify a low-post game that will allow a perimeter game to develop as well as provide the Owls another legitimate offensive tool. Both have the size and skills to make an impact in the paint necessary for the Owls to have success. Stanley could be the dark horse of the team, as she sat out all of last season after transferring to the Owls from Kansas State University.

"It's completely different being on the sidelines," Stanley said. "You learn a lot, you see a lot of things that you don't see while you're playing."

Freshmen looking to make an impact include guard Jessica Goswitz and forward Lacey Neu, both of whom come from prestigious high school programs in the country: Goswitz from the Webb Scholl in Knoxville, Tenn., and Neu from Granbury High School in Granbury, Texas. Both have the ability to score, and, according to Williams, both have great potential on defense.

"They are both really well-coached on defense, especially Lacey, who might be the best defender on the team," Williams said. "She can defend at every position."

Non-conference play

The Owls play a plethora of road games inside the state of Texas to begin the season, starting today at the University of Texas-Arlington, before coming home for their first game at Tudor Fieldhouse on Nov. 24 against the University of Arkansas- Little Rock. The team then travels to a Thanksgiving Day tournament at the University of Miami and returns home after that for the Gene Hackerman Invitational held at Rice.

The Hackerman Invitational, which features University of Texas Pan-American, Jackson State University or Sam Houston State University, could make or break the early portion of Rice's schedule, as all three are in similar straits with Rice. However, if the Owls are able to sweep the tournament, the three wins would provide a great boost to their early-season record.

The first game of the new year will be Rice's biggest billing of the year, as the team travels to Washington, D.C., to take on George Washington University from the Big East. When these two met last season, Rice came out firing, taking a 44-28 lead in the first half before winning 78-68.

After taking on George Washington once more this season, the women open C-USA play with an away game at the University of Texas-El Paso.

The non-conference schedule is relatively weak this year, hopefully presenting a healthy break from last year's 5-9 non-conference record the team compiled.

C-USA up for grabs

The C-USA title looks to be up for grabs this year, as it often is. 2008-09 regular-season champion Southern Methodist University and tournament champion University of Central Florida both are poised to attempt runs at possible March Madness play. SMU returns four of five starters from last year and UCF boasts the preseason C-USA player of the year in Emma Cannon, who averaged 15.5 points and 11.6 rebounds per game last season.

When poring over the roster, this year's Rice squad resembles last year's UCF team, which qualified for an NCAA tournament bid after winning the conference tournament. The Golden Knights went through the same growing pains two years ago that Rice suffered from last year before they capitalized on their players' abilities. If all goes according to plan, Williams will steal a page out of UCF's playbook and copy their blueprint for success.

After running the gamut of the conference, Rice's C-USA schedule winds up with an away game at the University of Houston on March 4, followed by the postseason C-USA tournament in Tulsa, Okla., on March 10-13.

Williams lamented that the conference overall has not lost much depth, and all the top teams from last season returned most of their starters.

"While with our young team I would really like to say that the conference lost a lot, they haven't," Williams said. "We'll have to be at the top of our game all year to compete inside the conference."

Tempered expectations

While a higher level of competition is expected by all involved in the program, a jump to the next level this season would be quite a step for a team that struggled mightily last year in almost every aspect of the game. With such a young team, growing pains can only be expected. However, the women aim to build upon the success they had last year and utilize the tough lessons they learned last season.

The Owls have to be realistic in their expectations for the season, as maturity does not necessarily translate into points and experience doesn't always translate into wins. As such, Smart said the team will be pouring all of its efforts into conference play and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with winning the conference title.

"It's ultimately the goal of every team that steps onto the floor to make it to the dance," Smart said. "But ultimately, we just want to be competitive in the conference.

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