Stringer's 39th season to be one of her toughest
For someone who admittedly looks forward to a challenge, the upcoming season for the Rutgers women's basketball team should not disappoint head coach C. Vivian Stringer.
One of the most prolific scorers in the country, a four-year starting center and a versatile perimeter shooter are gone.
Make no mistake, without the big name players that it has been used to over the past several years, the team does not anticipate success simply falling into its lap.
"I personally like challenges," Stringer said. "I just have to keep my mind focused on the fact that as long as we try and really work hard every day and give the effort, then I feel that we are learning because we can't afford to drop our heads and be frustrated.
"We don't have anyone [who can bail us out]. We have to be the best team that Rutgers has ever had in order for us to survive this schedule — the best team."
For a team ranked fifth in the country prior to last season and third the year before, RU begins the year at No. 25 in the latest polls, the last possible spot.
The Knights take on eight teams ranked in the top 25, as well as four top-10 programs in No. 2 Stanford, No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 8 Tennessee — not to mention unanimous No. 1 Connecticut, coming off yet another perfect season.
Senior guard Brittany Ray returns as the leading scorer for the Knights, after averaging 10.2 points per game in the 2008 campaign. A critical performer last season, — especially down the stretch in Big East play — the senior will be called upon to help provide a spark for the new-look offense from the very first tip-off.
"It is obvious that Brittany will need to be a go-to person. That is a little different set of clothes that she wears now," Stringer said. "It can't [all] be Brittany. We all have to share the responsibility."
While Ray, redshirt sophomore guard Khadijah Rushdan, senior forward Myia McCurdy and senior center Rashidat Junaid will be relied upon as upperclassmen to contribute, the Knights need to see execution from all five members on the court, regardless of class.
"I don't think we can put everyone into classes like senior, junior and sophomore," Ray said. "I think that were going to have to be a team, like coach Stringer said. It's all about ‘we' this year; she's been stressing that a lot in the past few weeks."
The "we" comes partly in the form of the Knights' sophomore class, which entered last season as one of the most heralded freshman classes in the country with five McDonald's All-Americans.
Fast-forward to this year, and two of the three transferred. Of the three who remained, sophomore forward April Sykes led the class in scoring with an anemic 3.2 points per game, low numbers from one of the premier recruits in the country.
For the Knights to help replace the scoring they lost in the offseason, production from the sophomores will be critical, but the "we" aspect is something Stringer expects from all 10 of her players whenever they suit up.
"The things I am talking about with the ‘we skills' — the ‘we skills' are passing, better defense and rebounding. We have to be better at all those things," Stringer said. "We have to be smarter. We have to take advantage of the layups. We have to recognize how you play this game and how balance it has to be going inside and going outside."