1997-98 ASU Women's Basketball Outlook
Second-year head coach Charli Turner Thorne knows one thing for certain as she ushers in the 1997-98 edition of Arizona State women's basketball. The momentum will continue to shift.
After all, things have been changing ever since ASU's seventh head coach came aboard in June 1996. She began by installing a new level of defensive intensity. Then, she proceeded to guide the Sun Devils to their most successful season since 1992-93. And all signs point toward more excitement this year, with the addition of the 26th-best recruiting class in the nation. In other words, Turner Thorne is already well on her way to restoring prominence to Sun Devil basketball. The program is one that boasts two NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances, four All-America selections and 23 all-conference picks. The history is there for the repeating, and the influx of almost twice as many newcomers (8) as returners (5) this season should provide the program with a giant step toward achieving that task. "It's a phenomenal situation when you're a new coach and by your second year you've been able to recruit players for your style," Turner Thorne says. "We have a team that is 100 percent our team this year, and that is truly exciting.
"The people we have coming in are very excited to be at Arizona State and realize the opportunities that come with our program. They are committed to helping ASU get to the top of the Pac-10 and become nationally ranked, which is our ultimate goal." Five letterwinners return from the 1996-97 squad that went 9-19 and finished ninth in the Pac-10. Gone are nine letterwinners, including two-time All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention selection Molly Tuter. The graduation of Tuter, ASU's third leading all-time scorer (1,374 points), leaves a void that won't be easily replaced. Eight roster slots are filled by newcomers, six of which have never played Division I basketball. The prospect concerns Turner Thorne, but carries with it a positive slant.
"Many of our new players are coming from winning programs and have been leaders on their teams," she says. "We can use that. Because we haven't been together very long as a team, we have to take the leadership qualities of every player on our squad and use them collectively." Primary leadership will come from senior guards Rameeka Lowe and Stephanie Freeman. A 5-foot-7 guard from Seattle, Wash., Lowe is the Sun Devils' only returning starter, having played in the final 14 games of 1996-97. She took over starting point guard duties in the last 13 contests. Freeman, ASU's sole three-year letterwinner, will be counted on heavily to provide a young team with direction. The 5-foot-10 small forward played in all 28 games a year ago and emerged as the squad's trusted sixth man, playing 21 minutes per contest. "We have a pair of marquee seniors in Stephanie Freeman and Rameeka Lowe," says Turner Thorne. "But almost half of our team has never played Division I basketball. Game experience is something you just can't teach a kid. They're going to have to get a year under their belts. That also means everyone can focus on winning -- and not about vying for playing time -- because everyone will be a contributor this year."
A contributing factor to the team's success this year will center around its pressure defense, which Turner Thorne helped hone last season. The Sun Devils finished third in the Conference with 12.4 steals per game, and that defensive tone will play a major role as the coaching staff continues rebuilding the program. "Our mentality will be we can guard anybody and we can shut anybody down," says Turner Thorne. "And the flip side this year, which is going to be so refreshing, is we'll be much more effective scoring. "The cornerstone for our growth as a program is going to be with our defense. We've gone out and recruited some extremely talented offensive players, but I for one do not want to have to rely on our offensive skills night in and night out."ON THE PERIMETER
Arizona State displays depth at all three perimeter positions and will be armed with plenty of offensive options in 1997-98. So many options in fact, Turner Thorne says any attempts to predict the lineup are premature. "Our 1s, 2s and 3s are interchangeable," she says. "We want to run and we want our 1, 2 or 3 running the break, so they have to be very versatile. We honestly don't know who will play where because we know everyone in our program could play all of the perimeter positions if they had to."
At the point, juniors Michelle Tom and Rechelle Lang will compete for the majority of playing time. Lowe will assume backup point guard duties early in the season. An Arizona native and a transfer from Central Florida last year, Tom becomes eligible in mid-December. The starting point guard for Phoenix College in 1995-96, Tom averaged 19.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists en route to being named the 1996 Arizona Division II Player of the Year. Lang, a transfer from Casper (Wyo.) College, helped direct her squad to a 32-4 record and a seventh-place finish in 1996-97, garnering honorable mention All-America recognition. She can play the 1, 2 or 3 spots, but her primary role will be as floor leader and point guard. "I see (Michelle and Rechelle) providing great offensive versatility and giving us stability and floor leadership we need," says Turner Thorne. "They can run the break and if they need to score, they can finish it. If the pass is there, they're going to see it. "We'll need to rely heavily on them. Although neither one has played a Division I game, they're going to be two of our veteran players. We'll need them to learn very quickly. The development of the junior class will be critical to how rapidly this team comes along."
Alongside Lowe, freshman Ebony Edwards will battle for action at shooting guard. Lowe started the final 13 games at the point last season, although her true position is shooting guard. She dished out nine assists twice and notched double figures in scoring six times. Lowe averaged 7.5 points, 5.0 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game. "I am eager for Rameeka to show people what she can do on the basketball court," Turner Thorne says. "She has worked hard to become a complete player and will be a key to our success this year." Edwards, a two-time Arizona Player of the Year (1997, 1996) is coming off an incredible prep career after guiding Chandler High School to back-to-back state championships and a 32-1 record last year. One of ASU's most highly-touted freshmen in recent years, the speedy, 5-foot-7 Edwards possesses an explosive offensive game. "Ebony's defensive prowess will allow us to keep the pressure on teams," says Turner Thorne. "It's also going to be hard for opponents to keep up with her on the offensive end."
The small forward assignment will be filled by Freeman, who averaged 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds as a junior. She finished second on the team with 21 three-point field goals last season, and her 119 rebounds were second only to Tuter. A defensive stalwart, Freeman recorded a team second-best 51 thefts last year and needs just 45 steals to crack ASU's all-time top three. "Stephanie is the one true veteran player on our team, and we will look to her to lead us on both ends of the court," says Turner Thorne. Senior Spring Steed will provide depth behind Freeman. She saw action in 24 games last season and can fill in at shooting guard as well. Freshman Leaf Newman could also push for time at small forward and is expected to respond if called on to play any of the perimeter positions. Newman, out of Perris (Calif.) High School, is a proven scorer, averaging 31.0 points a contest in Sun Belt League games last season. "Leaf has trained very hard to make an impact her freshman year and I definitely think she will," Turner Thorne says. "She is an excellent scorer."IN THE POST
A young contingent takes over with the loss of five post players (four forwards and one center) to graduation. Two sophomores and two freshmen will produce at forward and center. The leading candidates for starting jobs are sophomores Kristine Sand and Rachel Holt. "Kristine and Rachel have a year under their belts," Turner Thorne says. "They're extremely capable of coming in, starting and being a great tandem. Kristine is a phenomenal high-post player. She's got a great three-point shot. We've worked on her ability to penetrate, and she's a good passer. Rachel is virtually unstoppable in the post and she has been training very hard. We'll be looking for them to be our young leaders in the post." Sand averaged 13.5 minutes as a rookie and will be ASU's most experienced post player. She averaged 5.5 points, notching double figures in scoring four times. Freshman Kellie McDanal will also see action at forward. A native of Conifer, Colo., McDanal received all-state honorable mention acclaim as a senior, helping Evergreen High School to the state semifinals.
Holt fills the role as ASU's major presence inside. She contributed 9.9 minutes per game as a freshman, with a season-high 22 minutes against California. Ready to make 1997-98 her impact year, Holt worked extremely hard in the offseason to concentrate on her perimeter shooting and running the floor. Pushing Holt and adding depth in the middle will be freshman Jennifer Bennett. A strong, defensive post player, Bennett averaged 4.0 blocks as a senior at Mead High School in Spokane, Wash. She should be a major contributor immediately.
"Jennifer and Kellie are getting an opportunity to see a lot of playing time their freshman year and really grow and develop," says Turner Thorne. "Kellie is a little more of a high-post player and Jennifer is more of a low-block player. We'll work hard in the preseason at rounding them out so that they're strong both inside and out. I'm excited about the opportunity they're going to have as contributors, and that's a large part of the reason why they came to Arizona State."THE FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT
The future of ASU basketball only looks brighter with the addition of a pair of Division I transfers. Sophomore guard Natalie Tucker and sophomore forward Aubrey McFayden will practice with the squad this year and have three years of eligibility beginning in 1998-99.
"Natalie and Aubrey are our Dynamic Duo," says Turner Thorne. "It's an advantage for us to have them. They will accelerate the direction of the program dramatically. To have two top-notch players to practice against and have in the system for a year before they start using their eligibility is going to be a huge bonus." Tucker, a point guard from Georgetown, Texas, played one season for Texas A&M, seeing action in 26 of the Aggies' 27 games. She averaged 14.3 minutes per contest. McFayden, a native of Redmond, Wash., competed for Colorado State as a freshman. She earned one start, playing in 26 games and averaging 8.5 minutes. McFayden finished third on the team with 14 blocked shots.THE SCHEDULE
ASU plays host to as many as eight 1997 NCAA Tournament teams this year, including dates with defending Big West Champion UC Santa Barbara and Marquette to start the season. In addition, the Sun Devils could also meet up with 1997 SEC Tournament Champion Auburn in the ASU Wells Fargo Classic. Pac-10 rivals Stanford, Oregon, USC, Arizona and Washington round out ASU's other "March Madness" opponents. Posting a winning record and finishing in the Conference's top five is Turner Thorne's top agenda item this year. Playing such a strong non-conference schedule will be to the Sun Devils' advantage come January, according to Turner Thorne.
"The Pac-10 is obviously one of the best conferences in the country, and I want us to be prepared for it," she says. "I'm also looking at the much bigger picture of developing and growing our program, and I want us challenged. I know this schedule will challenge us, yet I know we can come out of the preseason with a winning record." Watch for the Sun Devils to wreak havoc with unsuspecting teams. This year's squad realizes they will not be the favorite in every single contest, and that position often acts as a motivator.
"We will enjoy the underdog mentality all year," says Turner Thorne, "and I say 'enjoy' because it can be fun to play that role. If we go out and work hard, develop great team chemistry and execute our system, we can beat anybody in the country. "But we won't be expected to, and that's a fun role. It's a nothing-to-lose role. We are still aiming to prove we can go out and beat top teams consistently. And after the way we competed last season, I know nobody is going to take us lightly."