WVU women's basketball: Mountaineers hope to meet expectations in Big 12
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The good news for Mike Carey, the West Virginia women's basketball coach whose team is entering a new conference, is that his Mountaineers team was picked to finish second in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll.
"In adding West Virginia, you've added an athletic, strong, physical basketball team that knows how to win and is extremely well-coached from a league that has seasoned that program over the years," Kansas State Coach Deb Patterson said. "They have lined up against the likes of Notre Dame and Connecticut year-in and year-out and have competed toe-to-toe with those programs.
"Short of having advanced to a Final Four, I think that has been a program that all of us that coach look at and go, 'Oh, my gosh.' That's an Elite Eight, or if things roll the right way, a potential Final Four caliber team. As we all know, in the NCAA Tournament, you need a little luck, you need some great pairings.
But this is one of America's finest programs."
Seeing as if the Big 12, and not the Big East, has produced the past two national champions and features one of the sport's all-time greats in Baylor's Brittney Griner, that was about as high a level of praise as WVU could have expected.
Above WVU is defending national champion Baylor and the Bears got all but one of the 10 first-place votes. Coach Kim Mulkey wasn't allowed to vote for her team, so she picked the Mountaineers.
The bad news for Carey and the cause for his concern as WVU prepares to open the season with tonight's home game against UNC Wilmington? The preseason poll occurred when the 2012 team's leading scorer and second leading rebounder, Asya Bussie, was healthy.
Bussie then tore her ACL on the second day of preseason practice and will not play this season.
"It's never good for that to happen, but at least it happened early and the players have been able to respond and learn new roles," Carey said. "Where a lot of times we counted on Asya to do a lot of things and now somebody else has to pick that up."
The Mountaineers took off last season when Carey began starting the 6-foot-4 Bussie and the 6-3 Dunning together. WVU went 10-5 with those two starting, including losses in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Dunning wound up as the team's leading rebounder at (8.8 per game) and fourth-leading scorer (8.3).
Without Bussie (12.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 53 percent shooting), the focus in the post shifts to Dunning, who is now on her own top deal with the Brittney Griners and the rest of the big bodies in the league.
"We felt good about coming in this year with our size and veterans in the post, but things like that happen," Carey said. "We have to move forward. We're very positive. We think players have picked up the slack. Compared between the Big East and the Big 12 personnel-wise, I think the Big 12 is a lot bigger, where you had two or three big post players in the Big East where here you have two or three on each team. But we have to do what we do."
Carey is confident in his guards. They include Christal Calwell, who was second to Bussie in scoring (10.8) and Taylor Palmer (10.6), who made 74 3-point baskets. Point guard Linda Stepney could start this season after averaging 4.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a freshman last season.
The final starting spot could go do do-it-all junior Jess Harlee or freshmen Jennie Simms or Bria Holmes.
Holmes, a 6-1 guard, was considered a top 25 prospect nationally and was the first player from Connecticut to play in the McDonald's All-American game. In three years at James Hillhouse High, Holmes had 1,459 points, 486 rebounds, 324 assists, 405 steals, 162 blocks and three state titles.
Simms, a 6-foot guard, averaged 14 points and 12 rebounds as a senior at Riverdale Baptist (Md.) High and led the team to a No. 1 regional ranking from USA Today.
Harlee averaged 5.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists last season and led the team with 65 steals
The Mountaineers are otherwise blessed with depth in the backcourt with junior Brooke Hampton and freshman Darius Folk at point guard and sophomore Akilah Bethel at shooting guard. They also have sophomores Averee Fields and Crystal Leary at forward.
"We're going to get out and run, we're going to use our quickness," Carey said. "We're going to defend. We've just got to keep people off the board. We're not going to be as big as some of these teams."
The Mountaineers return all but 33 points, 28 rebounds and 137 minutes played from last year's team - and all of that belonged to graduated center Natalie Burton. Everyone and everything else is back, which is a major difference from how things started last year. Back then, Carey was welcoming back one senior and one starter. That WVU team was picked to finish ninth in the Big East preseason poll.
The Mountaineers instead made a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and a fourth in five years by tying for fourth place in the final standings. WVU beat ranked opponents in three straight games for the first time ever, a streak that started with an historic win at No. 2 Notre Dame.
WVU lost to the Fighting Irish in the semifinal of the Big East Tournament, but beat Texas in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Stanford.
"When you go beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame, and they beat Texas in the NCAA Tournament, that's an outstanding team, and one that I think has had a long run of success," Iowa State Coach Bill Fennelly said. "I don't see why that will change when they come to our league. I think the travel will be unique for them and for us. But it's a great team. A physical team. A team that defends the right way and a team that's going to be very, very well-coached."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.