The women’s basketball team held a virtual media day Nov. 18 with the season opener against Central Florida Wednesday. The event featured Coach Tina Thompson and sophomore guards Amandine Toi and Carole Miller, who discussed their expectations going into the season and the experiences adapting to a preseason dominated by COVID-19. Miller and Toi also spoke on their roles as team leaders. Here are a few key takeaways from media day.
New leadership roles and positions for Toi and Miller
As the only two returning players with significant experience on the court, Toi and Miller will be looked to as leaders for Virginia. Both players, who started alongside three seniors last season, have had to become comfortable as vocal leaders on the floor.
“We're a young team in general, even with our returners,” Thompson said. “The great thing about our sophomores is that they had a lot of experience last year, they played a lot of minutes, so I don't think that it was a problem for them to step into leadership from a competitive standpoint. I think that it was more just them being a lot more vocal.”
Miller, who averaged 6.0 points and 3.6 rebounds per game last season, also touched on her experience moving into a leadership role.
“I went into high school starting with four seniors, [which was] kind of similar to what I did last year,” Miller said. “Then my sophomore year, I was put into a big leadership role leading the team in trying to lead them to a state championship.”
Following her first healthy season last year after missing two years with knee injuries, Toi is adapting to her new role on the team. Her focus last season was primarily to get through without any injuries. Now, Toi — one of the oldest players in the locker room — will be looked to as a veteran presence on a young team.
In March, Toi was able to get back to her native country of France, where she spent the offseason playing with the French national team. Among many things, she talked about learning to improve her shot selection and mental toughness — things she hopes to bring to Charlottesville.
“I think my big focus [this season] will be to be consistent,” said Toi. “I think that I sparkle sometimes, and sometimes I'm shutting down.”
Toi also mentioned that she will be changing positions and has been tasked with being the primary ball-handler for the Cavaliers. Miller will do the same — the six-foot guard played primarily at power forward last season but will move to her more natural position on the wing. She spoke about the transition and becoming comfortable playing as a guard again.
"Playing my more natural position this year has kind of been a challenge to refine myself and do the things that I was used to doing,” Miller said. “Attack the basket. Just get back in my more aggressive mindset.”
There are ample opportunities for inexperienced players to earn playing time
Toi and Miller are penciled in at two starting positions, but the other three spots are wide open going into this season. While it is expected that the sophomores and upperclassmen will play the majority of these minutes, Thompson will likely look to her freshmen — just as she did with Miller last season — to make an impact.
After playing most of last season outside of her natural position, Miller knows how freshmen can carve out a role for themselves. Despite being severely undersized for a power forward, she started 26 out of 30 games. Miller will look to use her experience to help the younger players on the team.
“I'm just trying to … teach the freshmen that what I went through last year, it can be you,” Miller said. “So just take advantage of your opportunity.”
However, due to the shortened offseason, the freshmen are behind where they typically would be. A lot of time was spent on conditioning, and they have not had as much practice adjusting to the higher level of play.
“They were supposed to come back a lot sooner than they did,” Thompson said. “Not being able to kind of get in gyms and actually be in a position to work and prepare themselves to be here, that was a struggle in the beginning.”
Thompson expects the freshmen to get more opportunities as the season progresses. One word was reiterated by all three members of the team who spoke to the media — “patience” — as the goal is to focus on the team’s development rather than the results.
“There is definitely an imbalance and most of the weight is being put on patience,” Thompson said. “We have to be really, really, really patient. We're a young team in general, even with our returners … so, when you consider that, patience is really important.”
COVID-19 has posed new challenges to overcome
Especially for an inexperienced and young team, COVID-19 has presented many challenges. The Cavaliers were forced to adjust to an altered schedule, one much different than what was expected to be played just a few months ago. The non-conference schedule was significantly shortened, with only four games outside of the ACC this season, compared to Virginia’s 11 non-conference games last year. After witnessing so many postponements across college athletics during the fall season, the women’s basketball team is prepared for in-season scheduling changes.
“We have to take one day at a time and focus on what's in front of us and adjust based on the information that we get from one day to the next,” Thompson said.
The Cavaliers have also had to alter the way they practice. The players and staff follow the University’s COVID-19 protocols, which include each player wearing a mask during practice, using a personal water bottle and sanitizing after any physical contact, even a high-five.
“It becomes a little frustrating because we're coaching things that have absolutely nothing to do with the game,” Thompson said. “But it's necessary because it's what allows us to be able to play, so it's not something that you can kind of overlook or avoid.”
Additionally, the team has had to adjust offensively and defensively due to the shortened offseason. Instead of focusing on individual player development, Virginia prioritized building chemistry and getting players comfortable playing with one another. Thompson also changed the order of how she taught her offensive and defensive schemes — players were first taught the physical movements and subsequently learned the reasoning behind them.
“It's kind of been reversed in the sense that we taught them the offense, and then once they got the offense, we're kind of showing them the why,” Thompson said. “I think every day, they're having ‘a-ha’ moments.”
Lastly, the pandemic hasn’t just affected the team’s on-court preparation. The entire team — both staff and players — can only gather together when in the gym. Given this constraint, building cohesion has been a challenge, as normal bonding activities such as team get-togethers and game nights are no longer possible.
Despite the unique challenges the 2020-21 season will pose for the Cavaliers, Virginia will need to overcome on- and off-the-court obstacles to compete well in the ACC.
The Cavaliers travel to Orlando, Fla. Wednesday to begin their season against Central Florida at Addition Financial Arena. Tip-off is at 6 p.m and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.