After first-round exits at both the ACC tournament and the N.I.T. last March, the Virginia women’s basketball team (17-14, 7-9 ACC) entered the offseason on a mission to improve as a unit. All five starters were set to return for the 2015-16 campaign.
But April rolled around and senior forward Sarah Imovbioh, who had earned a fifth year of NCAA eligibility, decided to take her talents to Columbia, South Carolina, where the preseason-No. 2 Gamecocks have turned into a premier program.
Imovbioh averaged a double-double — 12.6 points and 10.8 rebounds — for the Cavaliers a season ago. She and then-junior guard Faith Randolph, who scored a team-high 16.4 points per game, complemented one another with their respective interior and perimeter games.
Imovbioh’s departure has caused an offensive imbalance, coach Joanne Boyle said, one that she has witnessed in practice and scrimmages leading up to the season.
“We need better balance,” Boyle said. “We’ve talked about that. The inside: [freshman forward] Mone [Jones], [sophomore forward] Lauren [Moses] and [junior forward] Syd [Umeri], I think our three primary. When we talk about an inside-outside game we don’t necessarily think that if the ball goes inside we have to score. I think we just need better touches.”
With 6-foot-3 length and pure athleticism, Jones has arguably the most upside of the frontcourt trio. ESPN Recruiting ranked the Durham, North Carolina native the No. 10 forward and No. 57 overall prospect in the class of 2015. Jones still needs to adjust to the college game, though.
“As a young person she doesn’t quite have that motor that some of our upperclassmen have,” Boyle said. “She can shoot the ball and she’s got really good basketball IQ. Obviously she has length and speed, so we just have to stay on her about being on point with some things.”
Randolph and sophomore point guard Mikayla Venson, both of whom entertained questions from reporters Monday at John Paul Johns Arena, continue to push Jones beyond what’s comfortable. Meanwhile, the two leaders have developed an even closer bond with one another.
“I just think having a year playing with Mikayla we have definitely learned each other’s games,” Randolph said. “Just [working] through the offseason more and getting through the adversity that coach has brought us in the preseason and preparing for the upcoming season.”
When asked what exactly she meant by “adversity,” Randolph answered, “Through the conditioning and stuff it has been a struggle to get through it, and we know it will pay off and make us stronger in the upcoming season.”
A primary reason Virginia improved its conditioning during the offseason was because of this year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball rules overhaul, which Assistant Athletics Media Relations Director Melissa Dudek considers to be “one of the biggest revamps since the ‘70s.”
There will be 10-minute quarters instead of 20-minute halves. One media timeout will occur each quarter, after a coach calls the period’s first timeout or after the first dead ball below the five-minute mark. As a result, the clock could run for longer stretches of time, testing a team’s stamina.
Other rules changes include an NBA-like option to advance the ball past half court following a timeout in the final minute of regulation or overtime, double-bonus free throws after a fifth team foul and permission to play music during any dead ball. The NCAA believes these adjustments will accelerate play, increase scoring and bring added excitement to the game.
The Cavaliers have paid particular attention to the rule change concerning a trip to the charity stripe.
“Typically early on the refs are calling it kind of tight, so right away after five [fouls] you’re going to the line and shooting two,” Boyle said. “So we kind of had to adjust from our first season to our second. That’s big. One, you can’t foul and two, you better be a good free-throw shooting team.”
Randolph and Venson have no reason to complain about this increased free-throw volume from an offensive standpoint, given that they shot 90.7 and 83.9 percent, respectively, from the line last season. The pair will look to slash to the rim early and often.
“The foul situation — since we’re definitely trying to push and transition more — it definitely puts the defense on [its] heels,” Venson said. “Continuing to attack as soon as the team gets five fouls so you can get to the free throw line will help tremendously. So we just need to knock the free throws down.”
Virginia can afford to push the tempo more this season because of a five-guard rotation that includes Randolph, Venson, junior Breyana Mason, sophomore J’Kyra Brown and sophomore Aliyah Huland El. Mason averaged 9.5 points and 3.6 assists per game last season, again owning her role. Brown and Huland El are finding theirs.
“We are working with [Brown] on both sides of the ball,” Boyle said. “I think it’s just trying to find a balance for her to integrate herself into the team, score the basketball when she can, continue to board as well as she has been, let mistakes go and play on the defensive end of the floor hard.”
A transfer from East Carolina, Brown sat out 2014-15 per NCAA policy. She should bolster the Cavalier backcourt this season. Boyle believes Huland El, with a frame similar to Brown’s, can become a lockdown defender and a dominant rebounder from the guard position as well.
“I think [Aliyah is] really trying to do what we’re asking her defensively,” Boyle said. “We challenge her to be a better rebounding guard with her size. I think she understands what she needs to do for us and I think in the scrimmages she has had the lightbulb go off and that she can do more than just score for us.”
Virginia wants to be a different team defensively in 2015-16. Although the Cavaliers forced an average of 15.5 turnovers per 40 minutes and held their opponents to a mark of around 40 percent from the floor, they weren’t thrilled about allowing 63.8 points per game. Boyle will demand more intensity on the defensive end and mix and match schemes.
“We’ve really just tried to pick it up and be more aggressive to take things away from people,” Boyle said. “We’re really trying to do a little bit more with getting people to try and reverse the ball and deny the reversal passes and get up on people … We’re going to press more this year, we’re going to use our matchup zone more.”
An extension of this aggressiveness, a challenging schedule Boyle has arranged may lend itself to more losses but could also yield a couple of resume-building wins. Virginia will travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands in late November and take on three 2015 NCAA tournament teams — Green Bay, Rutgers and Tulane.
In addition, the Cavaliers will host preseason-No. 23 Iowa Dec. 2 and challenge No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus Dec. 21. And then, of course, there is ACC play, where the Cavaliers will face No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 8 Louisville (twice), No. 7 Florida State, No. 12 Duke and No. 20 North Carolina, among others.
Virginia awaits its season opener Friday night at Middle Tennessee State. The 2014-15 Blue Raiders finished 24-10 (14-4 C-USA) and advanced to the quarterfinals of the N.I.T. Then-sophomore forward Olivia Jones averaged 19.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors. She leads another talented Middle Tennessee squad this season.
Venson clearly respects the Blue Raiders, but she fears neither them nor their notoriously hostile crowd.
“The fans are going to be crazy anywhere you go,” Venson said. “Just focusing on ourselves and not worrying about the other team … Most definitely the little things. Make sure you come out with good energy and keep the fire throughout the game."