Get ready for strange season
This year is going to be a strange one.
The expectations are nowhere near as high as they usually are. There is no star power — yet. And two of the greatest players in Rutgers women's basketball history, Epiphanny Prince and Kia Vaughn, are elsewhere.
There's just a RU team that clearly wants to play basketball — and a Hall of Fame head coach.
"I think we're projected as kind of an underdog and that's a good position for us to be in," said senior guard Brittany Ray. "It doesn't put a lot of pressure on everyone because we're such a young team and everybody doesn't expect that much. When people put a chip on your shoulder, I think you're going to work harder to exceed expectations and I think that's what this team is going to do."
Anyone remember the 2006-07 team that went to the NCAA Championship game?
Probably not, but the shades between then and now are everywhere.
Don't be surprised if the Scarlet Knights start off the season as poorly as they did back then. Three years ago, RU started 2-4 and didn't catch its stride until it was almost too late. This year will be similar.
A brutal schedule at the beginning of the season, including a face-off with No. 2 Stanford at the Louis Brown Athletic Center to start the 2009-10 campaign, awaits the Knights.
With a team so young, don't expect instant cohesion.
But when this team inevitably clicks, watch out.
"They do, in my opinion, have better chemistry than any of the other teams," said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. "They have a great deal of pride. They don't want to look bad. It is our intention to protect them until they are ready to fight on their own. I have no doubt that we will ultimately be where we need to be.
"I just want to remind myself and us as a coaching staff not to get frustrated. My experience tells me as long as we have the right attitude, we do the right things and we work."
Maybe a star-less team without the monumental expectations of the last two seasons is exactly what RU needs.
The experience and talent of the last two seasons obviously wasn't the answer with two early exits from the Big East Tournament and the inability to return to the Final Four with virtually the same roster in 2007-08.
The tone this year is different.
Just talking to the senior class, it's clear that Ray, forward Myia McCurdy and center Rashidat Junaid know what they have to do.
But the X-factor and key to victory falls in the hands of sophomores Chelsey Lee, Nikki Speed and April Sykes — the remaining members of last year's Fab-Five, none of which performed, or got the chance to perform, to their potential last year, and that absolutely needs to change.
"We never lost as much as we did last year and I think it took a toll on us," Sykes said. "After we lost to Purdue in the Sweet 16, we got in the gym the next day toward this year. Sometimes people say ‘You lose to learn,' and I think losing a lot of games last year taught us this year to be prepared."
Right after getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament, the Knights hit the gym to get ready for the next season. Everyone's passed the conditioning tests and even Stringer, who isn't known for babying or having the nicest things to say about her players to the public, seems pleased.
"I think they have great potential as long as they don't get an attitude with each other or give up on each other," she said. "I have always had the great guard that can get it done or the outstanding center. There is always somebody that has a name or reputation. I really like this challenge because we have a real chance to prove what it means to be the ultimate team. The ultimate team — that is what I am talking about."
— Sam Hellman accepts comments and criticism at firstname.lastname@example.org