Freshmen set to make quick impact
When asked about the tall task the trio of freshman face this season, C. Vivian Stringer put it best.
"There is no question, there is no such thing as a freshman and there is no point in talking about it," the head coach said.
With all the noted departures in the offseason, little attention has been paid to the Rutgers women's basketball team's incoming class, featuring two McDonald's All-Americans in Monique Oliver and Erica Wheeler and the No. 13 forward in the country in Christine Huber.
Perhaps that is all for the better, because in order for the team to stay strong throughout the year, the freshmen need to make an impact on the court, said senior guard Brittany Ray.
"Our freshman, they're going to be thrown into the fire," she said. "We only have 10 people this year so it's going to be crucial that everybody plays — we're going to have to bring everybody along and make sure we all compete and show a lot of effort."
Ranked as the sixth overall prospect in the country, Oliver originally signed a letter of intent to play at Southern California, but was granted a release after the Trojans' head coach resigned. A month later, she committed to Rutgers, and is prepared to make her presence felt on the court.
If the pressure of playing No. 2 Stanford to start the season is high, the forward isn't showing it.
"I'm not really [feeling pressure], I'm just here to learn new things and make my game better, so I'm just really here to learn," Oliver said. "I'm a little nervous but excited at the same time, so I can't wait [for the season.]"
While Huber, a 6-foot-4 forward from New York, has seen her fair share of coaches from the high school level, playing for a coach who was just enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is of another caliber entirely.
"Coach Stringer is amazing. I've had a lot of good coaches in the past, but when she talks she really makes sure you get what she's saying and she explains why, so it's not just like ‘do this,' it's ‘do this because,'" Huber said. "That doesn't just help you understand, it helps you remember and you will get better."
For Wheeler, a gifted athlete with a good jump shot, the mantra is to go hard every time she hits the floor.
Ranked the fifth best point guard in the 2009 class, and 39th best player overall in the nation, the Miami native knows what Stringer and her teammates expect of her this year.
"Coming here, I knew that by playing for Coach Stringer, Coach likes to play hard," Wheeler said. "My expectation is that when I come out I have to give it my all, I can't leave anything behind when I practice, play or anything; both myself and the team, we have to go hard."
Though the freshmen may not be fully ready coming out of the gate, Stringer emphasized the importance of having them finish strong. Still, she expects a maximum effort from the three as they continue to adjust to playing in the top conference in the nation.
"We all have to share the responsibility," Stringer said. "The freshmen can't hide. The freshmen have to hold themselves accountable."
Stringer's challenge is one the three are ready and willing to accept.
"We are some strong freshman — there's not a day that we've come here and haven't worked hard. Even if we're hurting we still work hard," Wheeler said. "All Coach [Stringer] cares about is if you have heart and if you show some effort; she doesn't want you to be flashy."
While the incoming class is not as heralded as last year's — which featured five All-Americans — the team is prepared to help them adjust to college ball so they can make strong contributions.
Although last year's crop of recruits were counted on to impress, the highly touted quintet only managed an average of 2.1 points per game and only three remain on the roster for the upcoming season.
"I don't want them to struggle like we freshmen did last year, so we need to make it as easy as possible," said sophomore guard Nikki Speed. "Don't listen to how Coach Stringer says something, but do listen to what she says because she is trying to help us play to the best of our ability."
Having the strong support base is critical for a team who was picked to finish sixth in the Big East going into the season.
The leadership has already made an impact on the three, while their work ethic has equally impressed the upperclassmen.
"[The freshmen are] doing tremendously well. They've come in with open minds and they're so willing to learn," Ray said. "… I think that's so good that you have freshman who are willing to learn and it brings a positive outlook on things."