NORMAN, Okla. -- The Oklahoma women’s basketball team will officially begin preparation for the 2006-07 season this evening when it holds the first practice of the year.
“The NCAA gives us just enough time with our players in September to get over-anxious for October,” said OU head coach Sherri Coale. “Our laundry list of things to teach and work on is so lengthy7 p.m., can’t get here fast enough! Our young players are anxious and eager and we’re all ready to be on the floor together to officially begin the process of getting better every day.”
The Sooners, who completed off-season conditioning last week, will hit the court with five returning starters and five new faces. The headliners on the squad are All-American sophomore center Courtney Paris and two-time All-Big 12 senior Leah Rush. The three other returning starters are senior point guard Britney Brown, senior guard Erin Higgins and senior guard Chelsi Welch, who all earned honorable mention All-Big 12 acclaim last season.
Also back in the fold for 2006-07 are sophomore forwards Ashley Paris and Carolyn Winchester. Ashley has been praised by the OU staff as the most improved player on the squad. As a freshman last season she averaged 5.9 points and 6.7 rebounds.
The freshman class is led by McDonald’s All-Americans Amanda Thompson and Abi Olajuwon. Also in the mix are rookies Nyeshia Stevenson, Rose Hammond and Jenna Plumley.
The Sooners have been ranked as high as No. 2 (ESPN.com) in preseason polls and have been slotted no lower than sixth. Courtney Paris has also received early praise in the form of Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year (Big 12 coaches) and All-America (Athlon, Street & Smith’s and CSTV) honors.
Preseason Polls: Athlon | CSTV | ESPN | Lindy's | Slam | Street & Smith's
The high rankings come on the heels of the 2005-06 season, which was one of the most successful years in OU history. Last season the Sooners posted a 31-5 record, including a 19-0 run through Big 12 play and a Sweet 16 appearance. OU was ranked No. 8 in the final 2005-06 Coaches Poll.
The first chance to catch the 2006-07 team will be at the Baseline Bash Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. The preseason event is part of the homecoming festivities leading up to the Colorado football game on Oct. 21. Admission is free and the doors will open at 6 p.m.
OU opens its season by hosting the State Farm Tip-Off Classic at the Lloyd Noble Center Nov. 12. OU will play DePaul at 2:30 p.m., while Rutgers (No. 11 in CSTV.com poll) and Georgia (No. 9) will meet in the early game at Noon Central. All four teams reached the Sweet 16 last season.
General admission season tickets still remain for the 2006-07 season, although reserved level tickets have sold out. Fans interested in season ticktes can call the OU Ticket Office at (405) 325-GoOU or visit SoonerSports.com.
On the eve of the first practice, Coale sat down with SoonerSports.com for an extensive Q&A on the upcoming season:
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SoonerSports.com: Can this team win a National Championship?
Coach Coale: “Yes. Things have to go right. You have to get a lucky break here or there, but I think there are only a handful of teams that can say they are good enough. Life has to shake out appropriately, but we are in that handful. No one is going to give it to us and we have to earn it, but we have a shot.”
SS: How do you develop five freshmen on a championship caliber team?
CC: “First of all, we are all about the here and now. We are pursuing championships this season and that is where all of our energy and focus will lie. The subplot is making sure those freshmen progress. I think it is much more of a mindset or understanding, which was planted the first day they stepped on campus. I brought each one of them into my office and said, Here is the deal. You are freshmen and you have to take it all in. Next year you are going to be the leaders of this team. So your task this season is to figure out what the seniors are doing. Don’t just be a part of the atmosphere, but figure out why the atmosphere is that way. Figure out what Leah, Chelsi, Erin and Britney do to make us better because you will have to be those leaders next season.’”
SS: How does Courtney Paris top last season?
CC: “I have been asked that questions a million times. Courtney’s deal is, the records she breaks now, will mostly be her own. She never came in as a freshman and said, I want to break 55 records.” That was never her deal and it never will be. She knows there are little things that she has to improve on. There are a million areas where she can get better. She does not shoot for accolades or records. She does not care about anything but the chance to reach a Final Four and getting our team into the national championship game. If we do that, all of her records and accolades will take care of themselves.”
SS: Does this team feel any different with 14 players, as compared to 11 last season?
CC: “Oh yeah. There is already a competitive fire in our gym, that only comes when you have depth at every position. No one wants to be Wally Pipp, be sick and out for a day and never be heard from again. That is an edge that we are excited to have this season.”
SS: Can you see yourself going 11 or 12 players deep this season?
CC: “I like to sit here now and say, yes.’ When I look at the talent and potential of all those guys, I want to say, absolutely’, but that would be a perfect world. It is like when you shoot a shot with no arc, it has to be dead on in the middle to go in. If you put some arc on it, then it has a chance to bounce around and fall in. In order to be able to have an 11 or 12 player rotation, everything has to be exactly right. Experience tells me that chances are that will not happen. I do think that we will be much fresher. I felt like we were a little worn out against Stanford in the NCAA Tournament, which may have been mental more than physical. I feel like we will be fresher because more people will have a chance to contribute.”
SS: How does the Big 12, as a conference, rank this season?
CC: “A national writer asked me last week to rank the top six teams in the Big 12 for this upcoming season. I felt like Texas A&M and Texas were going to be real strong and then I had a hard time with where to go, especially in the (Big 12) North. There are a lot of new faces and relatively new coaches, who are just now getting their kids and their system fully implemented. I think it will be a bit of a transition year for the league.”
SS: Is it possible to go undefeated through the Big 12 season again?
CC: “I don’t know. I think you have to take it one at a time, like we did this past year when we just concentrated on the task at hand. I think our team looks around and says, We are all back and if we do what we are supposed to, why would we lose a game.’ I like that mind set, but I also know that the ball has to bounce correctly at crucial times. We had that happen last season and I know how fine that line is. Our goal is to put ourselves in a position where that close factor does not come into play at the end of the game. The only way you can make that happen is to make sure you do not beat yourself.”
SS: Do you have a different approach to the Big 12 streak this season?
CC: “I kept it out of their heads as much as possible last season because I didn’t want that young team to feel pressured. I just wanted them to continue to get better. Then it caught us all by surprise. As a staff, we just wanted to get a lead in conference and then it hit with two games left, 'Well why don’t we do this,? How often do you have the chance to complete something this special?’
“I think the team is different this year. They are older. The young players are going to follow the example set by the older players. I am a fan of throwing it at the seniors and saying, Can you do it twice? Do you want to do something real special? Then go 38-0 and then you will be in the history books for a long time.’
“I am fan of that mind set with these guys, because I think they can take it.”
SS: What is the key going into to preseason practices?
CC: “That stays the same every year. We have to learn how to have an intense and efficient two-hour practice. We need to take advantage of that time. Second to that is we need to learn how to guard someone. You are going to get tired of hearing that come out of my mouth. I think we can score. I don’t think it matters what offense we are running or what group of players are on the court, we will be able to score. The question is, are we willing to and can we get down and guard somebody?”
SS: Who is the most improved player from last season to now?
CC: “Ashley Paris. Her footwork has improved. The high post shot is money. Her confidence is better, aggression is better, endurance is better and she has polished up her fundamentals. Perhaps more than anything, she is just more comfortable in her skin.”
SS: Do you see Amanda Thompson as the piece that was missing in your losses last season?
CC: "Yes and no. I look at those two early games, Connecticut and Michigan State, and I am fine with those losses. They were turning points for this team. We didn’t know how to play with Courtney when we lost to UConn. We learned from that. Against Michigan State we didn’t play as a team. We learned that we could be a very good team or a below average group of individuals.
Stanford was a different deal. Even more than the in-between offensive game that Amanda Thompson brings, we have to be able to guard people and bring a sense of urgency with our defense. I never felt like we dictated anything that happened in that game. I felt like Stanford dictated everything on both ends of the floor.
That is where I look at this incoming freshman class as a whole and believe they can take us to another level. We should be able to dictate and keep teams from going to their A option. I think they (the freshmen as a group) bring more of a defensive slant than offensive.”
SS: Is Amanda Thompson a throwback player?
CC: “Amanda is an old soul. She is steady and mature, and her game is that in its own right. She loves to be in the gym and she would be in here every night if she had a car that would get her from the dorms to Lloyd Noble. She loves to pass, it is her favorite thing on the planet.
I am not sure yet, but I think she is going to be a player that takes great pride in guarding people. That is a mindset, you have to love that and want to shut people down. There are lots of kids that are capable of that, but don’t have the mindset to do it. I think Britney Brown is like that. She wants their best player and she wants to shut them down. I think Amanda may be that and that is definitely old-school.
If you watch Amanda in drills, you would not think she was a McDonald’s All-American. You would not think she could impact a veteran team like ours. But if you get a game going, then you figure out how good she is. I saw this with USA Basketball and have seen it in individuals already. When she needs to make a shot, she makes a shot. It is as simple as that.”
SS: Does your defense need to improve more on the perimeter or in the paint?
CC: “Last year, we were not bad defensively. Our field goal percentage defense and our rebounding were great. There were lots of good things that we did but I don’t know that we really ever dictated. We were in more of a prevent defense than a blitz and I want to be able to create some offense out of our defense. I want to dictate play to our opponent.
That begins by being able to pressure the basketball and not getting beat off the dribble. Obviously, transition defense is a big part of that and we were very good at that last year.
Courtney’s size, her gift for timing in terms of shot blocking and her instincts are really good. They saved us a lot last season. But for us to be a really great defensive team, we cannot rely on her to save us. A really smart, well-balanced basketball team, like Stanford last season, exposed those defensive lapses. I thought our low post defense was exposed in that game and our perimeter defense was not good enough to cover anyone one-on-one.”
SS: It sounds like we will see a lot of new defenses this season...
CC: “It just depends. I think we can put a lineup on the floor that will dog them from baseline to baseline. You might think we look like Texas A&M on those nights. I also think we can play a big lineup and look like Iowa State as we pack it across the lane, stretched finger tip-to-finger tip. It will depend upon who we play. I want to be able to do several things really well and that is all a by-product of the depth of talent we have this season.”
SS: How unique is your senior class of six?
CC: “I don’t mind saying that particularly in women’s basketball, it is not an easy thing to have happen. Men, by in-large, are much better at being really different off the court and then getting on the floor and being all about the same thing. This group has grown together. Nearly every one of them has tasted physical adversity and because of that they have a deep, abiding respect for each other as athletes and competitors.
“This group of kids came in with the same set of expectations and they have figured out they need to come together to reach all of their goals. They are about as tight as they could possibly be, but they have a great challenge in front of them to integrate the five freshmen. They have their hands full this season and I can’t imagine a group more capable.”
SS: How do you feel about the comparison to the 2002 final four team?
CC: “I don’t mind it. When you have six seniors, it is either a recipe for success or a recipe for disaster. It is what it is. When kids have been in your program that long, they are either baptized in it and all about the name on the front of the jersey. Or they are not and you have no chance. I have a great, great feeling about this group of kids. That does not mean it will ever be easy. We will have periods where they question what their role is or how they fit into things, but I really feel like the heart of this group is square in the middle of their jersey.”
SS: Have Nyeshia Stevenson and Abi Olajuwon been the biggest surprises among the freshmen class?
CC: “Probably because we knew how polished and ready Amanda was. Our expectations were pretty high for her. It was the same with Courtney last season. We never felt like she could exceed our expectations because we knew how good she could and would be.
“I think Nyeshia flew under the radar a little bit. She has been a real quick learner and that has been very exciting for us. Abi is just a sponge. She is so raw and has so much to learn, but she learns so quickly. When she gets it, it is ingrained and that is really exciting.”
SS: Talk about the physical transition that Leah Rush has made this off-season...
CC: She is bigger and stronger, which I think will put her in a position to do some of the things she has not done in the past. Similar to Laura Andrews last year, Leah’s body just reflects all the work she had done over four years.
I look back and Leah had several games last season when she could have scored 20 points had she not been knocked down going to the rim or taken a beating on a rebound. This year Leah is going to inflict more punishment than she receives.”
SS: How high is Nyeshia’s ceiling in terms of talent?
CC: “I have never had anyone like her.
An immediate comparison that comes to mind, and they don’t play the same position or the same way at all, but I remember when Sophia Young was a freshman in the league and everyone said, Oh my goodness, if she figures it out, we are all in trouble.’ Then as a sophomore, you were worried about guarding Sophia for the rest of her career and the nightmares that would entail. I see Nyeshia like that because her level of athleticism is so extreme, that if she gains a good fundamental basis and owns the right competitive mindset, you won’t be able to stop her.
That was the thing about Sophia , you could do everything right and she would still get to the rim or get the rebound. Then she developed a mid range jumper that was so smooth. Right now it is just potential, but Nyeshia has it and it will scare some opposing coaches if she puts it all together.’”
SS: Where has Britney Brown improved as a leader since last season?
CC: “She is the kind of kid that the more you give her, the better she gets. Britney really improved as a leader over the course of last season. She has continued to be that player that rallies the troops. She was the one making sure the freshmen had everything they need when they moved in the dorms and she took them to the computer store. She has done all the off the court stuff that builds respect and trust on the court. Others have been a part of that including Leah Rush and Erin Higgins. Those three have really organized this team all summer long.”
SS: Where does Krista Sanchez fit in this season?
CC: “She is that type of player that is going to win you five or six games and nobody will talk about her. The papers will not write one story on her, but the team will know about those five or six wins. She may score 20 or she might not, but you have to account for her because she is that deadly of a player.
There is a time and a place for a player as skilled as Krista. She has evolved, gained confidence, and is now playing towards her strengths all the time. She has really evolved and deserves all the credit for that. At the same time, the people we are able to put around her this year will put her in a position to be even more successful.
In other words, guarding on the perimeter has never been her strength. That is not going to be nearly as exposed if you have Britney on one side and Nyeshia with her pure speed on the other side. That means more minutes for Krista.
The same thing is true for her playing off of Courtney. She is an excellent passer and we used her a number of times last season just to open the door for Courtney. She has a knack for finding that angle and is obviously a good enough player that she can make them pay if they choose not to defend her.”
SS: How has Jenna Plumley come along?
CC: “Jenna is the most fundamental of the five freshmen. She is really trying to lead that group and really trying to be a point guard in every sense of the word. She has a long way to go, but I have been very impressed by her initiative to be a point guard, to be a leader whether they are on the floor or in conditioning. That is what a point guard must be, a leader 24/7.
We signed her because she was the best post feeder in her class and I am not just talking about Oklahoma. I am a talking about all around the country. Obviously, with the makeup of our team that is a very important skill.
She can shoot it from crazy deep too. She really can light it up. The thing that really has me excited since her arrival is that she makes a lot of really tough shots. She is tiny and when she matches up with a big guard, you figure she won’t get her shot off. But she is pretty darn accurate from three steps behind the arc and if she can’t get the shot off, you can bet she will find someone that can.”
SS: Where is Rose Hammond fitting into this system?
CC: Rose is unassuming. She is understated compared to the rest of the class, but she is so smooth and that fits her personality. When I look at Rose, I see this monster beneath the surface and you are awe struck when it appears. Then it goes dormant for a little while and it might pop out again. Even now, I am seeing more and more of that phenom. If she continues at this pace, Christmas will come around and everyone will be saying, Where did that kid come from.’
She reminds me of LaNeishea Caufield because I used to tell Neish that she, had another gear you don’t even know about and when you hit that, it changes everything.’ It took Caufield until her junior year to find that gear and then she played in that gear as a senior.
Rosie is a little bit like that. She does not even know what she can do yet, but every once in awhile when she is thinking about something else, that phenom comes out and everyone just says, wow.’