The Nebraska women's basketball team looks more different than usual since last April. Between the coaching change and subsequent impact on recruits and transfers, this will be a difficult season to prognosticate. Let's dive in anyway and take a look at Jill's uneducated guesses....
Gone are Connie Yori and her assistants. Britney Brown is now an assistant at TCU. Ashley Ford landed an assistant coach position at New Mexico State University and Amy Stephens headed to St. Louis University in an assistant role.
New Husker head coach Amy Williams brought her entire coaching staff and director of operations from the University of South Dakota. Her assistants include Tom Goehle, Tandem Mays, and Chuck Love. Williams played college ball at Nebraska, beginning her career as a walk-on and eventually earning a scholarship and was a four-year letter winner. She was a graduate assistant at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and spent six seasons in the assistant ranks at Texas-San Antonio, Oklahoma State, and Tulsa. She has been a head coach for nine years; five at Rogers State where she built the program from scratch and still managed a 97-65 record. She served for four years as the head coach at the University of South Dakota, where she notably coached her Coyotes to the Women's NIT championship in 2016.
Mays played for Williams at Tulsa and is entering her ninth year on Williams' staff. Her specialty is with the guards, an area that will be critical this upcoming season with the Huskers losing all three of their starting backcourt.
Love has spent four seasons with Williams. His forte is post player development which is likely to be the strength of the Huskers this season. He will have three players with starting experience returning. His expertise as a college player was defense, but I have not tracked down any specifics on his role re: offense or defense as a coach.
Also working with the post players will be Goehle, who is entering his second year with this staff.
Four seniors graduated including former All-American guard Rachel Theriot and reserve post Anya Kalenta. One-year transfer players Kyndal Clark (starting guard) and Alicia Ostrander (reserve post and Husker volleyball player who joined the team after the VB season, but did not play due to an injury suffered in her first basketball practice) also graduated.
One of the biggest offseason disappointments was the loss of guard, Natalie Romeo who transferred to Washington after Coach Yori's resignation. Natalie was a second team All Big Ten selection and one of the best three-point aces in the country. She was also regarded as one of the hardest working players on the team.
Coach Williams managed to keep three of the five incoming freshmen in the fold in guards Nicea Eliely (6'1, Colorado), Hannah Whitish (5'9", Wisconsin), and guard/forward Grace Mitchell (6'2" Kansas). Unfortunately, the two highest rated recruits, guards Mi'Cole Cayton and Kathleen Doyle chose to head elsewhere with Doyle right across the border in Iowa and Cayton heading to Cal.
Replacing them on the roster are incoming freshman Riley Cascio-Jensen, a 5'10" guard from Nebraska who was originally committed to play for Williams at USD and Bria Stallworth, a UMass transfer. Jensen was a teammate of standout forward Jessica Shepard in high school. Stallworth is a 5'6" guard who will have to sit out the 2016-17 season and then will have three years of eligibility for Nebraska. As a freshman, she averaged 13.1 points and 3.8 assists per game. She was s 35% shooter from behind the arc and showed good ball security with 2.7 turnovers per game (she averaged 32 minutes of playing time per game as a freshman).
Returning players from last season include All Big Ten first-team post Jessica Shepard (6'4" sophomore, Nebraska). She will be joined by senior Allie Havers (6'5" Michigan) and sophomore Rachel Blackburn (6'3" Kansas). Blackburn was the early season starter opposite Shepard but after injuries and illness was replaced by Havers, who easily played the best basketball of her Husker career in 2016. Sophomore Darrien Washington (6'3" California) rounds out the front court. Washington was a lightly used reserve last year, averaging 3.9 minutes per game.
Returning guards include sophomore Maddie Simon (6'2" Nebraska), juniors Jasmine Cincore (5'10" Tennessee) and Emily Wood (5'5" Kansas) and senior Esther Ramacieri (5'8" Canada).
Cincore originally asked for a scholarship release after Coach Yori's resignation. She indicated that she wanted more playing time, which could have been hard to come by if the two highly rated incoming freshman had stuck with Nebraska. Simon, Ramacieri, and Cincore all were rotated into the starting lineup at times last season when injuries and illness plagued the three Husker starters (Theriot, Clark, and Romeo).
What This Season Could Look Like
The post rotation seems fairly well set with Shepard, Blackburn, and Havers getting most of the minutes down low. Havers began to show a little offensive firepower toward the end of last season while Blackburn is a stalwart defender. Blackburn also has some attitude and fire in her style of play. It would be really nice if Washington has been able to develop her game more in case someone goes down with an injury, but I mostly expect her to be a role player in giving the other three a breather or handling garbage-time minutes.
The guard spots are wide open, mostly due to roster losses but also because of the coaching change. The Huskers will need someone (and probably two someones) to emerge as scoring threats to compliment Shepard. At least one new starter at guard will need to be a scorer from day one.
Incoming freshman Hannah Whitish is a true point guard and could very well emerge quickly if she and Coach Williams' system mesh well. She may not be a scorer, but she seems to have the "it" needed to run Amy Williams' offense. Even though they have not carved out much playing time in the past, Cincore and Ramacieri could emerge as veteran leaders in one way or another. Cincore's hard-driving style (read as: bodies hitting the floor) seems like a good match with what I have heard about Coach Williams and what she wants out of her players.
The Huskers seem to be flush with "wing" players, albeit young talent. Maddie Simon has an edge due to her year of experience in college ball. She was inconsistent as a freshman and seemed to collect fouls quickly, but some of that roughness may be due to missing several weeks with a broken arm. She showed a nice three-point stroke at times and certainly has the length and abilities to drive to the rim or pull up for a mid-range shot.
In addition to the 6'2" Simon, Nebraska also has collected a couple more tall wing players. Six-foot freshman Eliely's recruiting profile indicates she can drive, score in traffic, and has off-the-charts potential. The 6'1" Mitchell is noted as a deep threat who is an excellent ball-handler in uptempo games.
If that wasn't enough, the Huskers received a commitment from 6'0" Minden, Nebraska native Taylor Kissinger, who is listed by ESPN as one of the "elite perimeter prospects of 2017". It seems not only possible, but likely, that the 2017-18 Husker team will feature at least 4 starters at 6+ feet (with the 5'6" transfer Stallworth being a strong candidate to fill Natalie Romeo's shoes as the fifth starter).
I had high expectations for this Husker team last season, given the amount of young talent meshed with the veteran Theriot. As the season wore on, I grew somewhat frustrated with the apparent underachievement and lack of "want-to" displayed by the team. After the season was over, it started to become clear as to what went wrong.
An almost-perfect storm of small misalignments combined to create what, in hindsight, appears to be a toxic stew of acrimony, infighting, and mistrust. It starts with a head coach with a personal life in shambles (divorce and child custody battle). Add in reports of assistants and support staff who did not agree and players/practice team members who called out the effort and maturity shown by other players. It all points to the fact that there was no real leadership at all in the 2015-16 season. I have to believe that if Sunny Smallwood was still on the coaching staff, or if Lindsey Moore was still the point guard, the team might have weathered the storm.
The enthusiastic Williams and influx of young talent on the Husker team does lead one to imagine that 2016-17 will likely be a rebuilding year. I still think an NCAA tourney bid is possible, but most of my expectations will lie with the following two seasons, especially if ace-recruiter-Amy-Williams is able to draw in some post talent to complement the guard/wing-rich recruiting of late.
This is a very young Nebraska team. The most talented players are underclassmen and the coaching staff is new. How quickly everyone gets on the same page will determine how quickly this team goes from "solid, sometimes very good" to "very good, they could be great".