The Atlantic 10 preseason rankings might have predicted the women's basketball team to finish fifth in the conference, but they shouldn't have done that with any security.
This year's team has a lot of variables, including players battling injuries and the fact that it depends on underclassmen for significant scoring.
Nevertheless, head coach Michael Shafer said it was the most talented team he had coached during his four-year tenure at Richmond.
"If everyone stays healthy and everything stays status quo, we should not be playing on the first day of the A-10 tournament this year," he said. Shafer was referring to the possibility of the team getting a bye, an advantage awarded to the top four teams.
But, at this point, Shafer said it was tough to make predictions. Though he declined to go into specifics, Shafer said a lot of players were playing through injuries. He has had to sit players during practice, slowing the team's development and chemistry.
"I know the talent and skill level are there, but it's a slower development than had we been healthy," he said.
Despite the setbacks, players noted that team chemistry is stronger than last year.
"We're more like sisters now, we've been around each for so long," junior forward Johanna McKnight said.
Senior forward Christina Campion agreed.
"We just click better on and off the court," she said.
One main reason for the improvement in team chemistry is the fact that the team has more experience. Although still young by conventional standards — the team has 10 underclassmen — Richmond returns three sophomores who played significant minutes last year.
"Coming in last year and having to play as freshman, they to play through their mistakes," Campion said.
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Knight said that more would be expected of sophomores now that they have an extra year of experience.
"They can guide the new freshman," Knight said. "We're going to need them to step up.
On the court, Richmond's athleticism and shot blocking is figured to be improved.
"We've always been on the boards, but now we can get the ball up the floor," McKnight said of the team's improved athleticism. The goal is to get the team more easy points and score more in transition.
When Richmond is in its half-court sets, the team will be led by point guard Kara Powell, who Shafer described as an "All-Conference type of player." Campion, last year's leading scorer with 10.4 points per game, will be depended on for interior scoring. She was the only Richmond player named preseason All-Conference, and she has a knack for playing well in big games. Last season, she scored 22 points against the University of Connecticut and 20 points against A-10 champion George Washington University.
Defensively, the team hopes to exploit the athleticism as well. The team will primarily play a half-court man-to-man defense, although it will occasionally play zone and press full-court.
With the addition of freshman Crystal Goring, Shafer said the team would have improved shot blocking. Last year's team was undersized, and teams were able to score easily inside. The team expects Goring, a former McDonald's High School All-American to block shots. During practice, Shafer said she has shown "flashes" of greatness but that "the rust must still come off." Goring missed the last two basketball seasons because of the birth of her son.
With improved shot blocking, the team will be able to guard ball handlers more aggressively, with the goal of forcing the opponent away from its game plan. Shafer said the most aggressive defender would be McKnight.
"She's a kid that can guard anybody," he said.
McKnight agreed with the assessment.
"I see myself as a defender stopping their best player," she said.
Shafer said the Atlantic 10 is a deep league with as many as nine teams that are facing the possibility of post-season play in the NIT or NCAA tournament. George Washington is a perennially strong team, and Richmond is the only team in the conference to play them twice. Xavier will have four McDonald's All-Americans this year, although Shafer said it would take them time to develop because three of them were transfers. But, if the season is anything like last year, there will not be a whole lot separating the best teams.
"Last year it was kind of up and down," senior forward Christina Campion said about the A-10's parity.
Richmond opens its season Nov. 9 at the University of Georgia, where Shafer was an assistant coach before taking the Richmond job. The Bulldogs are ranked 10th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll. Shafer dismissed the notion that competing against his former employer would provide any extra incentive.
"The only difference is after the game I get to talk to old friends," he said. "I want to beat Georgia as much as George Washington."
McKnight said she considered Georgia one of the Spiders' toughest opponents, describing the game as intense.
"I feel like it will mean so much to Richmond to beat Georgia and mean so much to [Shafer]," she said.
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