By Charles Hallman
ESPN Analysts Carolyn Peck and Kara Lawson recently discussed this season’s women’s college basketball storylines. Here are some of their observations:
1) A breakout year for Britney Griner: “I think the international experience that she
had this off-season definitely helped her,” observed Peck of the 6-8 Baylor junior center. She also sees Griner’s body maturing, “…catching up to what she wants to do” as an offensive player.
“The thing I’ve seen Britney improve on is her aggressiveness and [ability] to handle double teams,” noted Peck, especially the junior’s anticipating the doubles coming at her quicker and passing the ball before they arrive.
The Gophers will play nationally ranked Baylor in Williams Arena December 4 as part of the Big Ten/Big 12 Challenge.
2) Will Tennessee finally return to the Final Four? The Lady Vols have not made the final quartet in three years. “I think it’s Final Four or bust for the team,” proclaimed Lawson, who played in three straight Final Fours as a collegian at Tennessee. “There is a sense of urgency for this team. They have one of the more talented teams in the country.”
3) Who are the stars to watch this season? Beginning with Griner, “We’ve got some great stars,” said Lawson. “You look at Skyler Diggins at Notre Dame; [Skekinna] Stricklen and Glory Johnson at Tennessee… There are just so many really good star players that are part of contenders.”
“There is lot of young talent that should make an impact this year,” concurred Peck.
4) Early Final Four predictions: “It’s hard to predict that right now,” admitted Peck. “There are no predetermined, clear-cut four teams that you are going to see at the Final Four. That makes this season very exciting.”
Lawson added that if hard pressed she would predict Baylor, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Connecticut as early favorites to make it to Denver, next spring’s Final Four site. She likes Stanford as well.
Gopher senior makes line
Minnesota senior forward Trevor Mbakwe is a career 61 percent free-throw shooter. Last season the 6-8 preseason Big Ten first-teamer shot just 62 percent from the line.
“I missed too many free throws last year,” he recalls, adding that especially in the game’s waning minutes, “I was uncomfortable [at the free throw line].”
Because he always is around the glass and is rated as one of the country’s top power forwards, Mbakwe needs to be at least an 80 percent or better free-throw shooter. “He is going to get fouled,” U of M Coach Tubby Smith says of Mbakwe.
As a result, Mbakwe made it a top off-season priority to work on this weakness. He also sought Smith’s tutelage.
“Coach has helped me with my mechanics,” the senior from St. Paul points out.
“He has been a one-eye shooting,” notes Smith on Mbakwe. “We have been working with him shooting the ball high[er] — he always has focused on the rim. He [also] had been shooting from the top of his head — we now have him move [the ball] to shoot it off his right ear.”
Though it’s early, Mbakwe has shown some improvement at the line. “This year I have been taking my time shooting free throws,” he says. If this continues, the forward no longer will be an easy target for opponents to foul in the closing minutes of the game.
“Being able to have a big man that can make free throws is a big plus,” says Smith. “When that happens, you know that you always will be in the game. When you get [the ball] to him, he can force the foul.
“Trevor is very coachable, and always has been,” concludes Smith. “He’s retained some of the things we tried to teach him. I think he’s got it.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.