Hi, everybody. Welcome back to another year. We're really excited about our team and our program. It's a very youthful group, and on some days that's very exciting and on other days that can make for a long day.
But we've had the opportunity to speak to you all right now with a little bit of something in that we've had some practice time this week. As many of you know, we have a little different rule than the men. We went to it two years ago where we have 30 practice opportunities in 40 days from our first game, if you count that back. So for us it allowed us to practice a little earlier. We began on October 2nd. So we've had four practices in right now. So I feel confident that I have a little more insight than just a generic this is what we think is going to happen. We can actually see a little bit on the court what our kids can do and talk to you a little bit about that.
I think our program is in a really good position. We're excited about our freshman class. We've got some high, high level talented kids that are going to see a lot of minutes early. That's obviously a really good thing, and that can certainly keep you up at night on the other side of it. But they're talented, and we're thrilled with what we have with the options we put on the floor.
The biggest thing for us right now, quite honestly, is to get everybody healthy. We're pretty banged up right now. We get people back at different times. I can share with you some of the injury reports as we go and you guys ask questions. But that's a big concern right now. We have some nagging things and some things where people are completely out and will have time to come back hopefully sooner rather than later. That dictates a little bit sometimes frustration in practice because you don't always have everybody going.
But we are excited about the season. We're very athletic and long and lean, and we can do a lot of different things defensively. We need to stay healthy, particularly Madison Williams inside. She's paid her dues, in my opinion. As a coaching staff, we've paid our dues waiting for her to get out there and our fans. And we're doing everything we can to make sure she stays healthy for the year. With that I'll talk a little about our schedule briefly and open it up for questions.
We're playing a total of 15 schools that were in the postseason. And the Big Ten success was one that we were all really proud of with seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, a very good representation in the NCAA Tournament, which is the first time that it's ever happened in a with seven teams. We're really excited about our brand of basketball in the NCAA and nationally. So we want to continue to capitalize on that.
Who will take over at point guard over the first nine games?
COACH MERCHANT: Well, right now we are blessed that we have Jasmine Thomas, a senior. She is a captain for us, and you know, she's played some minutes for us. She's started games at the point on and off mostly, really kind of fell into that two guard role a little bit last year as Kiana (Johnson) developed. We're excited. She's a fourth year senior, knows the program, has tremendous speed and athleticism. I guess if you could write a story going into your senior year, you'd want to err on the side of having the most opportunities that you could get out of the gate. So for us, Jasmine Thomas will take that over, and that's her natural position.
The positive thing is we don't have to make somebody a point guard that isn't. The back up situation where we have a couple of kids. Klarissa Bell is going to play back up for us as well as we have a walk on, Anna Morrissey, that plays the point guard position if need be. So we have three people. Certainly we're going to rely heavily on Jasmine Thomas, but as a fourth year senior and kid that started to play a lot of minutes, she's ready for that role.
You go into this season minus your top three scorers. Can you talk about offense and how you see that working this year?
COACH MERCHANT: I think we went into last season about the same thing; graduating the same situation. Yeah, I think from a defensive perspective as I'm built that way to think defensively, I am concerned about the offensive side of the ball, mostly because we're so young. Lot of those kids are unproven.
I thought Klarissa Bell came on last year. I think she's had a tremendous off season as a scorer, and we'd like to keep her in that position. Aerial Powers has really shown that she can score the ball, and Branndais Agee as a freshman was one, too and she's recently injured, and I'll talk to you about that. So we won't have her early in the season, but she's a talented offensive player. You know, Becca (Mills) is someone that I think is a match up problem at times because she can face up and post up. But it's really going to have to be a collective effort. I don't see anyone stepping up out of the gate.
Really, Lykendra (Johnson) wasn't a great scorer. She just found ways to score. But if you're asking me, we are missing that Porsche (Poole) type player that can get you 12 or 14 a game at this point just because it's unproven. Not because we don't have it. Just because we haven't been in a situation to see some consistency there.
Not sure how much you can address the situation with Kiana (Johnson) and Akyah (Taylor). Can you talk about the emotional decision to give Kiana the captainship and take it away from her?
COACH MERCHANT: We really can't talk about it. You guys know how that works probably even better than I do. But they're really good kids. I don't feel in any way that it was malicious in intent, and that's just my personal opinion in talking to them. But it's a situation that came about, and it puts us at a disadvantage. Kiana was a returning all-freshman Big Ten performer. Definitely has a commanding, commanding presence at the point guard position. That's one thing I'm a little concerned about. Jasmine Thomas plays at such a fast pace which is good on one level. On the other side, she's got to learn to slow down a little bit and pull that thing out of there and make sure our team knows what's going on, so we play at a pace that our heart rates are down and we're efficient and effective.
It definitely hurts our depth because Branndais Agee is out for the first six weeks with her injury. So there are three kids right there. I can tell you two of those three were starters, and it definitely changes your depth chart out of the gate for the first nine games.
Yeah, the captain thing is what it is. You can't make poor decisions and think you can still lead. It is disappointing. She understood it, and really to her credit, she has an opportunity to earn that back based on some of the things that she does, and holding herself accountable in all areas. I expect her to be able to do that.
But that wasn't easy, and she learned a lesson and so did Akyah. It does give opportunity. We've opened things up. I've always been someone that believes as a coach that you name your captains. I don't like popularity contests with voting. I've done a lot of different things in my career, but over time I figured out I need to go to the kids that I think can lead us to a championship. So obviously, Courtney Schiffauer and Kiana at the time were the two that came to me.
With Kiana's situation, I opened it up to the team in a team meeting after we were informed of some of the penalties and what the situation was that I was going to take Kiana's captainship from her. She was very good about it. Then opened it up to the team. Had a couple of days with a very intense kind of team building thing for the next couple of days that forces adversity and leadership through adversity. It gave people an opportunity to see who they might want to step forward. When that happened, it was unequivocally Jasmine Thomas and Klarissa Bell. So they're going to join Courtney Schiffauer this year as captains.
What is the involvement the two suspended players can have? Can they travel with the team, practice with the team? How does that work?
COACH MERCHANT: Yeah, everything, they can do everything. They just can't play. Technically they could play in the exhibition games because those don't count in the suspension, but that makes no sense to me to give people minutes that aren't going to play. So they will not participate in the exhibition game.
Can you talk about the change depth chart. Does that along with the youth you talk about change expectations for your team as you've finished near the top of the conference the last couple of years?
COACH MERCHANT: We're going to have those kids back before the Big Ten season gets here. So that's the good thing. I think it's the IPFW game is December 16 when Akyah (Taylor) and Kiana (Johnson) can come back for sure. We're hoping to have Branndais (Agee) back prior to that. Given her injury, we really do hope she can come back sooner than that. So in some ways you like to use those early games to start building a foundation in the rotation. But it is what it is. We've got to figure a way to get those kids back in the mix and use the depth. I don't think it changes expectations. One of my big things as a coach in this program I always believe that we don't make excuses. So it's not that we have no excuses and the expectation is still to win. That's how we're built, and that's what we're going to do is find a way to win.
You stood here a year ago and talked about how exciting Madison Williams was, and two weeks later it was all over. So is she at a 100-percent? And when she is, how much do you worry about the reinjury factor?
COACH MERCHANT: Yeah, it's tough. You have two ACLs. We were excited to have her back. She's not a 100-percent because the balance is rehab plus how much running does she actually do on two knees? That's been the challenge is can we get her in good enough shape, strong enough, fast enough, conditioned enough so that she's effective on the basketball court without taking steps backwards through injuries and maybe swelling and pain here and there. So it's been a delicate balance.
I'm thinking positive. I feel like that kid has paid her dues. I think this coaching staff has paid its dues. Our fans have paid their dues. It's her time. It is her time. Right now we're just trying to manage her ability to get back on the basketball court, where she has been not pain free, certainly. But just trying to find a way for her to get her confidence back, and she can be effective. Watching her in practice, she can change things. I mean, she is a difference maker, a program changer in a lot of ways, even injured just because she can block shots and rebound. I really don't care if she scores a point, she can do a lot of things for us and make up for a lot of mistakes, especially defensively for us. My hope and prayer is that she has a chance to play an entire season in the next four. She's earned it. She's paid her price. She's a great kid and a harder worker. I'd like to see her complete an entire season. Really, the next four.
With the other two girls as captains, Klarissa (Bell) and Jasmine (Thomas), talk about what makes them complementary captains and what Courtney (Schiffauer) brings as well in terms of on court and off court?
COACH MERCHANT: Well, Courtney (Schiffauer) is just a tough nut. At the end of the day, everybody on our team, she's the one you want standing next to you in tough times. She really has a presence about her. She competes. She's driven. So I really think it fits her personality just to continue as a captain in that role.
Jasmine Thomas and Klarissa (Bell), it's probably good for them a little bit because those are the two kids that have to step up the most for us given the depth issue. So any time someone's a leader or put in a position to lead, certainly their expectation is higher, and it should be higher of themselves. So we have confidence in each one of them. I think it's good for Klarissa little bit, because it showed her that her team has confidence in her, and the same thing with Jasmine Thomas. As I mentioned, I put that in front of the team. It was their choice after the situation. So those are the two people that came out without question. It was clear. It wasn't kind of sort of a captain. It was through and through those are the two kids that everybody wanted and needed to see step up. So I think it gave them some confidence.
Jasmine Hines gained more playing time last season with the injury to Madison Williams, how has her development been this offseason? Also, can you talk about the other freshmen?
COACH MERCHANT: I think Jasmine Hines saw more playing time because of that injury, which was a good thing. With Jas it's been a little about confidence for her and keeping her confidence level at a place where she feels like she can make a difference out there. She had a very good offseason. A little unfortunate at the end of the summer there she pulled a hamstring the second week of August, I guess it was and it really coming back from that hamstring. I guess it's more of a glute than a hamstring, and that's been a little detrimental to her. But she's in incredible shape. She was in the best shape I've ever seen her. She spent a lot of time in the gym. Just the wisdom from one to the next, and just sitting Becca (Mills) and Jas down and those second year kids. It's like you don't know what you don't know. That's the bottom line. As freshmen, you think you know, and then you go through a season, and their approach to an offseason, their approach to practices and every game we play certainly will have a different mindset for them now that they know how grueling a season is and how important.
Becca had knee surgery in the offseason in May that stemmed from the Indiana injury when she was a freshman. You saw her go down. She was starting for us. She did not play in the Michigan game after that. It's always been bothering her. But they did a nice job of getting that put back together, and she's been off most of the summer. But she has kind of joined the conditioning piece this fall, so she's not out of shape at all. But I don't know if she's a hundred percent, especially from a lateral perspective.
You asked me about the other freshmen. I think the two out of the four that stick out the most are Aerial Powers and Branndais Agee. Those are two kids that are special players and competitors, and create their own shots and have a high IQ for the game. Mariah (Harris) and Cara (Miller) are two kids that I don't know if you call them program kids, but I guess that's probably the best way to describe them. It's about the best way to develop them, and hours in the gym. I think the best we've had of a program kid is Taylor Alton. Just worked, worked, worked hours in the gym, extra shots, lots of reps, and built that into a really positive, junior and senior year, and ended up on national TV at the Men's Final Four shooting for a 3 point shooting contest, and is in England now playing professionally. So it's about development and investing and those are two kids that their time will be coming. It might not be as impactful as the other two.
If you had a game tonight, who would your starting five be?
COACH MERCHANT: I don't know. I really don't know. I think the guard play, I can tell you that for sure. Jasmine Thomas at the 1. You'd have Klarissa (Bell) at the 2, and Aerial (Powers) at the 3. But the 4, 5 position is kind of a work in progress because two of the three 5s are limited.
Annalise Pickrel's coming back, and we're moving her to a four. She had shoulder surgery in the offseason, and she's not able to practice right now. So as I said, I tried to warn you, we're a little banged up, and it's a lot of different things. We've had all different kinds of things. It's not the same injuries. Those are the three guards I'd start. I'm not sure about the other two yet.
Where do you see the biggest area this team needs to improve before the season? Does this team strike you being similar to last year in terms of having young player that's can push veterans like Klarissa (Bell) and Kiana (Johnson) did?
COACH MERCHANT: I think so. Once we get everybody back in the mix. I think the depth at the guard position is positive. Those kids are very athletic, and can score the ball and rebound it really well. So once we get everybody back in full swing, I'm excited about that. But, yeah, there are some definitely some characteristics from this time last year. A lot of things were unproven with Lykendra's situation. She was just coming back as well from what she was going through. She wasn't in the best of shape yet. There are just a lot of similarities. Porsche (Poole) really wasn't a defined great scorer. It took her time to get into a mix. I can see us in that same situation. It's going to take us time to figure out who emerges and what kind of consistent play we can get.
I guess is that what this team needs to experience is time?
COACH MERCHANT: I think so. I think that, and certainly we've been doing a lot more 5 on 5 early in the season than I've ever done before as a coach. But I just think that's necessary. We have nine kids that are basically freshmen or sophomores on our rosters scholarship wise. So that's a lot of youth out there. Some of the veteran kids played more of a reserved role or a complementary role. Now it's their turn to step forward just like it was Porsche's and Lykendra's and that kind of thing. That's the evolution of graduation and injuries and whatnot.