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Women shooting for strong year

By Ryan Glassman     11/8/12 6:00pm

Despite only returning two starters from last season and losing over 40 percent of their total minutes and points from a year ago, the Owls were still projected by the Conference USA coaches to finish better than they did last season. 

Junior forward Jessica Kuster, the 2012-13 C-USA Preseason Player of the Year,  is a key to this projected success. 

Kuster, the first Rice player to win preseason player of the year in seven years, averaged 17.3 points (second in C-USA) and 11.1 rebounds (first in C-USA, ninth nationally) en route to All-Conference honors.

Senior Jessica Goswitz, who led the Owls in three-pointers in each of the last two seasons, will provide invaluable experience in the backcourt, moving to point guard to compensate for the loss of D'Frantz Smart, the program's all-time assists leader. 

Additional help could come from sophomore Christal Porter, a member of the 2011-12 C-USA All-Freshman Team and the team's second leading scorer and rebounder from last season.

Sophomores Nakachi Maduka and Megan Shafer, who combined to average nearly eight points and four rebounds a game last season, will provide additional depth in the post. 

Sophomore Reem Moussa, fresh off of representing her native Egypt in the Afrobasket U18 2012 tournament, will compete with sophomore Maya Adetula and promising freshman Elena Gumbs for playing time in the backcourt.

In terms of schedule, few teams in the country will challenge themselves outside of their league to the degree that the Owls will this year when they play three teams currently ranked in the top 20 in the Associated Press Preseason poll. 

The first such test will take place next Thursday against No. 20 University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Then, after playing four of its first five games on the road, the team returns to Tudor Fieldhouse on Nov. 27 to host unanimous top-rank Baylor University. Baylor returns all five starters after a perfect 38-0 mark last season including Britney Griner, the reigning AP Player of the Year and one of the most prolific athletes to play the sport in recent memory. Also of note for the Owls is a New Year's Day game in College Station against No. 15 Texas A&M University, the last game of a brutal non-conference slate. 

Though the Owls went 6-7 outside C-USA a season ago, reaching that mark again this season would be impressive for the Owls considering their schedule.

The Owls were picked in a poll of the C-USA coaches to finish fourth in the conference this year. The top echelon in the C-USA consists of Tulane University and the University of Texas at El Paso, which each received five of the 12 first-place votes. 

UTEP returns three starters from a squad that represented the conference in the NCAA tournament a year ago and won the regular season and conference titles. Tulane brings back 10 players from last year's team, which went 9-7 in C-USA, tying with the Owls for third in the conference. 

The Owls are young - nine of the 12 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores - but can match up with anyone from a talent standpoint. Kuster's move to the wing should create mismatches for other players on offense, providing easy baskets for some of the team's less-experienced players. 

The squad has depth in the frontcourt, but point guard play will dictate the team's success. If Goswitz successfully transitions from the shooting guard position the Owls have the talent to compete among the C-USA's elite.

Will Kuster's production continue to warrant the respect she has received from fans and opponents alike? Can Goswitz run the point without the team compromising its overall shooting percentages, an area it has worked hard to improve upon from a year ago?

If the Owls answer yes to these two questions, they will be in the thick of the battle for the conference crown come March.

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