New Orleans (SBC) - Sun Belt Media Days for Women's Basketball started Tuesday. Arkansas State head coach Brian Boyer participated along with the other coaches in the Western Division.
Arkansas State begins the season ranked No. 3 in the Sun Belt's West Division Preseason Poll and look to improve with more returning starters than last year.
The Red Wolves return senior point guard Jazmine Taylor, who missed part of the season last year due to injury. Taylor was selected as the Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, and Coach Brian Boyer credits her as a good decision-maker. He said the one positive about her injury last year is that it forced her to improve her perimeter shooting.
Other key returners for ASU are junior NeNe Hurst and Second Team Preseason All-Conference selection Shay Scott. Boyer said he expects his leaders to come in and fill the roles left vacant by ASU's top scorer (Ebonie Jefferson) and rebounder (Lyndsay Schlup) from last year.
Boyer said Scott has improved to be a stronger, faster and more durable player than last season. Scott scored in double figures in 22 games and pulled down double-digit rebounds in eight others to average 12.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The senior led the team last season with a field goal percentage of .478. Scott averaged 3.7 offensive rebounds per game to rank fifth in the Sun Belt Conference and first on ASU roster.
Hurst has been plagued throughout her career with injuries, but Boyer said she's stayed healthy and has looked good through practice. Hurst averaged 11.5 points per game and led the Red Wolves with 90 assists on the season and shot a team-high .795 from the free throw line.
"NeNe can really score," Boyer said. "When you look at this level with the guards that can do all three things, she can attack the rim, she can pull the jumper, she can shoot the three, and she's capable of doing all three."
Of the newcomers, Boyer is particularly impressed with freshman forward Jane Morrill. "She fulfills a lot of roles for us," Boyer said. "She has the ability to score at that position and help us in protecting Shay."
With 16 victories this season, ASU head coach Brian Boyer will become the winningest all-time basketball coach (women or men) at ASU. Boyer also ranks fifth all-time in SBC victories and needs just four wins to reach the 100-victory milestone.
The Red Wolves plan to continue using their home court success to their advantage. Over the last five-plus years, the ASU women's basketball program boasts a winning percentage of .785 (77-21) at the ASU Convocation Center. The Red Wolves are 216-67 (.763) all-time at the Convocation Center and 105-44 (.704) under Boyer.
After defeating Georgia Tech in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, the UALR women's basketball team looks to continue its success this season. UALR was voted No. 1 in the Sun Belt's West Division in the league's Preseason Coaches Poll.
Coach Joe Foley said his team is excited to begin the year, but they have to continue moving forward and working hard. "When you go in as a preseason pick, everybody's shooting at you. I always tell my players that it's a lot harder to stay on top than it is to get there."
The Trojans return four of the team's five starters including seniors Chastity Reed, Shanika Butler and Asriel Rolfe. All three seniors – who are playing their fourth year for UALR – were selected to Preseason All-Conference teams, with Reed selected as a member of the First Team, and Butler and Rolfe as members of the Second Team.
Reed has racked up a few preseason accolades, including Preseason Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. The senior was named to the "Wade Watch" List and the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 30 List becoming the first Trojan women's basketball player to be named to the team.
"She exploded going from sophomore to junior," Foley said. "Not many kids can do what she's done since her freshman year. Going into her senior year I think she's naturally looking forward to it."
In addition to the team's returning starters, Foley said he expects production from sophomore Janette Merriex and freshman Karisma Tyson to give the team more depth.
The Trojans will face a tough non-conference schedule by hosting Louisiana Tech and facing Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Memphis on the road. "We have by far the toughest schedule, so they're going to get challenged quite a bit in non-conference." Foley said.
Foley has recorded 586 career wins and is just 14 wins away from recording his 600th career win. He said he feels good not only about the opportunity to achieve that milestone, but also about the people he gets to share it with. "It would mean a lot to me to have those three seniors because they've invested a lot in me and I've invested a lot in them," he said. "So if I did it with someone like that group right there, that would be great for me because I'd feel very good about who I'm sharing it with."
After coming off a tough season in which the Pioneers only traveled with seven players due to injuries, Denver ranks No. 2 in the league's West Division.
"Last year could have been a disaster," Coach Erik Johnson said. "But we were No. 2 in least amount of fouls. Only University of Connecticut was ahead of us."
Denver returns more than 80 percent of its offensive power as it welcomes back four of its five starters from last season, including All-Sun Belt First Team selection Kaetlyn Murdoch.
"She has a knack for blocking shots," Johnson said. "She's playing better off the ball and doesn't have to block as much. She's becoming more preventative and proactive on defense. We're pushing her to the next level."
The Pioneers have worked throughout the off-season to improve their conditioning with the opening of the brand new Pat Bowlen Training Center and the addition of new strength and conditioning coach Kathryn Whartenby. "She's done a wonderful job. The players are in great shape," Johnson said.
This season will hold special meaning for Johnson as the Pioneers will wear a patch on their jerseys to honor his son, Davis James. Johnson lost his 4-year-old son unexpectedly in May and said Denver and the basketball community has reached out to support him and his family.
"You can't imagine how much support we've gotten from the University of Denver community," he said.
The Ragin' Cajuns expect to combine the experience of three returning seniors with the team's five newcomers, including four junior college transfers, to improve this year's squad.
ULL's leading scorer and rebounder Mercedes Johnson returns for her junior year. Johnson, a Third Team Preseason All-Conference selection, led the Cajuns with 14.6 points, 3.4 free throws, 6.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals per contest last season. The junior power forward posted four double-doubles during the season and reached double-digit scoring in 23 games.
Additionally, Coach Errol Rogers said Johnson has improved mentally on the court too.
"She's going to lead this team," Rogers said. "She's taken it upon herself to be a senior right now."
Another key returner for Louisiana-Lafayette is Jasmine Barnes, who led the team in field goal percentage at 47 percent. She averaged 9.3 points per game while leading the squad with 33.0 minutes played per contest.
"Jasmine has been pushing the team," Rogers said. "She has done a great job making sure the young kids do what we need them to do to be successful this year."
Rogers said of the newcomers, he is particularly impressed with junior college transfer Danyell Oliver and freshman Bianca Davis. "They've stepped up their game," he said. "Oliver can really get to the rim. Davis is the point guard we've been looking for. She's going to give us significant minutes coming off the bench this year."
ULL also has newcomers on the staff with the addition of coaches Jaye Nayreau and Nic Jeffers, the latter of which coached Rogers' daughter. "I was always amazed at the things that [Jeffers] did and how he conducted his practices," Rogers said. "With Nayreau, he's been unbelievable."
Coach Mona Martin, who enters the season as the all-time winningest coach in ULM women's basketball history, said she is eager to start the season having several key players return to Louisiana-Monroe's squad this year.
One key returner is senior Kassie Courtney, who sat out last year after tearing her Achilles' tendon. Martin said having Courtney back would be a huge factor for the Warhawks' production on the court. She also said the senior has worked hard all spring and all summer to get in shape and be prepared for the season.
The Warhawks return three starters from last year's squad, including seniors Sannisha Williams and Priscilla Mbiandja, who both averaged double figures in points. Williams was a force on the glass, grabbing 237 total rebounds, 89 on the offensive glass. Mbiandja recorded 9.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.14 assists and 1.41 steals per game last season. She led ULM in both free throws made (118) and free throws attempted (146) on the season.
"Sannisha has been starting since her sophomore year and she has done such a tremendous job for us," Martin said. "Priscilla still had a lot to learn last year, but the one thing I knew about Priscilla was she was going to play hard. She was the No. 1 free throw shooter in the conference. She's going to get on the line six or seven times a game. That was, to me, very important."
Martin said the upperclassmen have stepped up to lead the team this year. "They've been wonderful with the young players, especially Kassie," Martin said. "It's been contagious. We have more than one leader now."
Coach Shanice Stephens isn't worried about the Mean Green's No. 4 spot in the West Division in the conference's preseason poll. She sees it as a chance for North Texas to prove itself.
"I see it as motivation and a challenge," Stephens said. "I'd love for this year to be our breakout season."
North Texas looks to blend the team's seven newcomers with the seven returners on the squad. Stephens said she is impressed with the four freshmen – all in-state products.
A key returner for the Mean Green is Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year and Second Team Preseason All-Conference selection Jasmine Godbolt, who returns for her sophomore season. Godbolt notched school records for most double-doubles by a freshman with nine last season to go along with a freshman rebounding record for a single season with 256 boards. The sophomore led all Sun Belt Conference freshmen in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, and free throws. She made 28 starts, the most for a true freshman in school history.
Last season North Texas struggled at the point guard spot, but this year there are three potential starters at the position. Stephens said it's a good thing that she doesn't know who will start at the position because it reflects the depth of this year's roster. The coach said one such player, junior Kasondra Foreman, has been explosive. "She never quits. She's a strong, positive leader," Stephens said.
North Texas hired three new assistant coaches in the past nine months – Larry McNeil, Jimmy Stellato and Margaret Richards. Stephens said the coaches bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the team. "The team welcomed everyone in," Stephens said. "They're strong, quality coaches and people with positive energy. Everyone comes together well."
Stephens said another motivator for her team is North Texas' men's team. "I tell [our team] that's exactly what we can do with discipline, dedication and determination. It's great inspiration and motivation