Picked to finish second in the Atlantic-10 by a preseason coaches' poll, Richmond women's basketball looks to take the next big step under eighth-year head coach Michael Shafer.
Getting to the WNIT tournament the past four seasons, this Spider lineup has the look of a NCAA tournament team.
Richmond returns four starters -- Rachael Bilney, Keri Soppe, Liz Brown and Genevieve Okoro -- from last year's 23-9 campaign, a season that was successful despite numerous injuries. Fifth-year senior Rachael Bilney is expected to anchor the team's scoring efforts, which could take a significant hit with the departure of graduated Abby Oliver, the team's leading scorer last season.
Bilney, who is joined on the team by twin sister Sam, shot better than 42 percent from three-point range last year, and she can take over games, as she proved last season, if she starts getting hot.
Six-foot junior Okoro will serve as the team's physical presence, having led the team in rebounding last year, and she can also add a lot to the offensive end if team's leave her in one-on-one situations. Look for her to take on more of the offensive load this season overall with Richmond set to need more of a team effort there, unlike the previous two seasons when Oliver (2011-12) and Brittani Shells (2010-11) were the main scoring options.
If Richmond wants to gain national prominence, it will need big steps forward from junior Wann and sophomore Brown. Wann, last season's A-10 Most Improved Player of the Year, has been the squad's main hustle player, doing all the little things to help her team win. If she can show significant improvement in her jump shot, she'll be a nightmare for other teams to match up with.
Brown, a 6'4" center, improved throughout her freshman year, but her thin frame allowed more physical centers to push her around at times. The Spiders need her to show a greater willingness to get physical under the rim.
Other players to watch for are Soppe, Kristina King and Amber Nichols. Sophomore Soppe dealt with several injury issues during her freshman season, but when in, she proved to be a reliable ball handler and distributer. Junior King is expected to start to begin the season, and she just adds another mid-range scoring threat to the lineup.
Junior Nichols may be the most intriguing of the group, having missed most of her sophomore year with an injury after showing good potential her freshman season. She's a very talented ball handler and can finish at the rim even when contacted. If she can stay healthy this season, look for her to be a main scoring threat off the bench and possibly starting by year's end.
Richmond kicks off its season Friday at home against Longwood University. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m. The Spiders face a tough out-of-conference schedule that includes home games against Miami (Fl.), Virginia Tech and Navy, and road games against Minnesota and Wichita State. If the team can get through that 15-game slate with just four or five losses, it will have a legitimate chance at running though its A-10 schedule toward a NCAA tournament berth.
Contact staff writer David Weissman at email@example.com
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