Graduations force shifts in mindset
After Erica Wheeler played the uncharacteristic role of a leader in the quarterfinals of last year’s Big East Tournament against Connecticut, the media wanted to hear her perspective.
But she skipped the press conference, instead to tend to her dehydration after playing all 40 minutes and leading the Rutgers women’s basketball team with 13 points in its low-offense affair.
Wheeler had raised her intensity level even more with that performance and lending a team-leading 28 points in the NCAA Tournament against Gonzaga in 37 minutes. She also had her hands full defensively with a high-scoring Bulldogs backcourt.
But Wheeler, who averaged 8.6 points per game last year, said those performances will no longer be uncharacteristic.
“Just mainly wanting to win, and [Gonzaga and UConn are] the top [teams], so when you play a top team you want to go at it as hard as you can and try to win,” Wheeler said of what inspired her. “That’s my mentality, just wanting to win so badly.”
But Wheeler ended up sacrificing her health for two
games that eliminated Rutgers from tournaments.
The Knights were not set up for any deep tournament runs last year, mostly because of a lack of depth in the frontcourt and no consistent outside shooting to amend it.
Rutgers’ first problem is a thing of the past with the return of senior forward Chelsey Lee from shoulder surgery and the addition of 6-foot-4 freshman forward Rachel Hollivay.
Now Wheeler has the unenviable task of leading Rutgers’ shooting stroke’s return to form a year after it finished 11th in the Big East in 3-point percentage last year with .286. The graduation of forward April Sykes, who sunk a team-leading 40 3-pointers last year, makes it even more difficult.
Wheeler leads an even less enviable task of remedying the loss of former point guard Khadijah Rushdan — now with Sykes on the Los Angeles Sparks — which involves replacing 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
“We’ll be playing Erica quite a bit at point even though we know that Erica is probably the best outside shooter on the team,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. “It’s just our style. We have not found Khadijah.”
Rushdan leaves a void of veteran leadership to a team with only four upperclassmen, and Wheeler is not the only one who changed her attitude for it.
Senior center Monique Oliver was always quiet-spoken and still is, Stringer said, but Oliver assumed leadership this year that Stringer never saw from her.
Oliver displayed that in one practice drill where certain players had to face the male managers. If their performance was not satisfactory, the team would run three 55-second suicides instead of one.
The Las Vegas native was the first Knight to show initiative in selecting who would play, which impressed Stringer.
“In every sense of the word, she’s a true leader,” Stringer said. “She recognizes what time it is. It’s time to get it done.”
Oliver was battle-tested in a year without Lee, which involved Sykes often playing the four and then-freshman forward Christa Evans entering the game and having difficulty with foul trouble — she had 31 more personal fouls than field goals last year.
With Lee, Hollivay and
a more-developed Evans, Oliver said the rotation encourages her.
With the new vibe of several Knights and new frontcourt depth, that means opponents also have to shift their game plan.
“Before it was just me and Mo [in 2010-2011]. We had to watch our fouls,” Lee said. “There are so many of us now that we don’t have to hold back playing.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Josh Bakan on Twitter @JBakanTargum.