Coach Blair has been pointing out that the Ags return 83% of the scoring from last year's team (2117/2541). We also return 81% of last season's rebounding (1207/1486) and 89% of our assists (521/583). This basically reflects that we only graduated 3 seniors, where only Karla Gilbert was a starter. Kristen Grant and Cristina Sanchez-Quintana averaged 5.4 and 1.3 min/game, respectively.
This year's team will be dominated by juniors from the highly rated 2012 recruiting class, which includes 3 of the 4 returning starters.
The starting backcourt is solid, with questions in the post:
- PG: Jordan Jones (#24 5-6 Jr) had some early struggles in her first year as the starter at point, but by the end of last year she was one of the top point guards in the country. JJ is more of a distributor and defender than a scorer, but she went off for a triple-double on Senior Night vs Arkansas. Jones made one preseason All-America list, and Coach Blair has said that this is her team. Jones is an elite defender and can make opposing point guards look bad at times with her ability to steal the ball.
- SG: Courtney Walker (#33 5-8 Jr) returns as A&M's leading scorer. Walker is preseason All-SEC and made some national preseason All-America lists. Walker was considered the best defender ever since she arrived on campus and often draws the assignment of defending the opponent's best player. Walker and Jones went with Coach Blair to SEC media days, and C-Walk was the focus of three videos from the event: the Coaches Clicker with Debbie Antonelli, a piece with Jones on A&M's backcourt experience and a piece with Khara Lawson on Walker's one-on-one ability. Walker is known for her mid-range shooting but increased her range last season, hitting 12-33 from behind the arc vs only taking 1-2 her freshman season.
- SF: Courtney Williams (#1 6-1 Jr) is the other half of the "CW Network" and has also been picked by a few preseason All-America lists. Williams may be the player with the most raw offensive talent. She led the Ags in scoring in 10 games, including 5 in a row over last seasons holiday break. She can create her own shot going to the basket, run the floor, and shoot the 3. Coach Blair has said that C-Will has been the player scoring most easily in preseason practice. Williams main offensive weakness comes when she forces more difficult shots than she needs; with another season of experience, it could be fun to see how she creates problems for opponents. Coach Blair has said he may also use Williams at the 4 in to get more playing time for Tori Scott and Chelsea Jennings.
- PF: Achiri Ade (#35 6-1 Sr Tr) is starting her second season with the Ags after arriving last year as a transfer. She started 28 games and averaged 25 minutes/game. Achiri was second on the team in rebounds and led the Ags in offensive boards. In addition to playing the 4, Achiri got some minutes as a 5 when we went small. Achiri is energetic and fierce but last year she struggled sometimes in the flow of the defense. She has reportedly been working on her midrange jump shot - this would be a great addition, as it would help keep defenses more honest. It will be interesting to see how Achiri's minutes are affected by how Coach Blair decides to use the different possible combinations we have available.
- C: Rachel Mitchell (#23 6-7 RS Jr) is the tallest and most experienced post, and I gave her the edge to start based on her having played in 31 games last season. Rachel has made progress toward being the center we hoped she'd be when she arrived in Aggieland, but I think it's fair to say that she hadn't arrived by the end of last season. We've heard that she's better in practice than what we see in games; perhaps she just needs more time on the floor to adjust to real game conditions. But in preseason interviews, Coach Blair has talked about using all three of his relatively inexperienced posts after losing Karla Gilbert to graduation.
A&M returns a lot of quality on the bench as well:
- Curtyce Knox (#11 5-7 RS So) arrived on campus with Jordan and the Courtneys, but redshirted her first year. She is more of a scoring PG than Jones and at times the Ags played Curtyce and JJ together. There are several very fast players on the Ags, but Knox may be the fastest.
- Tori Scott (#15 5-10 Sr) has played a key role mostly off the bench the past two years. Tori was a game saver in the Ags run to their first SEC tournament championship her sophomore year, shutting down Tennessee's Taber Spani in the second half. Tori played in all 36 games, averaging 17.2 minutes off the bench. She has speed and range, and I thought last year she looked more comfortable with her game. Her .541 FG% was second only to Karla Gilbert's .604, which is especially impressive since it includes 17-53 from behind the arc.
- Chelsea Jennings (#13 5-9 Junior) is another very athletic player. Jennings only saw the floor for 8.3 min/game, but Coach has talked about using her more. I enjoy watching her run the floor, and if she's become more comfortable with her shot in the offseason, she could be valuable off the bench.
- Tavarsha Scott-Williams (#32 6-0 Sr TR) played in 34 games, mostly spelling Ade at the 4 for an average of 7.4 min/game. In that limited time, she still managed to snag 2.2 rebounds per game and score a couple of points. On offense, Tavarsha has excellent footwork and ability to get position in the paint, but at 6-0 she will have trouble against the bigger teams in the SEC.
- Jada Terry (#12 6-3 So) was the third-string center last year, appearing in 22 games. There were times when it looked like she was pushing Rachel for the second-string and other times when she played like a freshman. I was impressed with how hard she played when she was in. From what Coach Blair is saying, Jada is in the mix for the starting post.
- Allison Chu (#30 5-6 Sr) joined the team as a walk-on last year. She got 4 rebounds in a mere 9 minutes of playing time, which extrapolates to 537 rebounds for the season if she played the same number of minutes as Courtney Walker. Oregon's Jillian Alleyne led the nation with 519.
Three new players could make an impact:
- Khaalia Hillsman (#00 6-5 Fr) is the only true fish on this year's team. Coming from Whitney Young HS in Chicago, Khaalia was a 4-5-star recruit, rated as the 5th best post and 28th overall at Prospects Nation (where only the top 10 players are getting 5 stars; none of the posts are in the overall top 10). Khaalia is already competing well enough in practice to be part of Blair's "three headed" post to start the year. The Ags open regular play by going to Chicago to play in the DePaul-hosted version of the Maggie Dixon classic (vs. the one in NYC we've played in before). Could be an opportunity for Khaalia to play in front of friends and family.
- Taylor Cooper (#3 6-0 So TR) came to the Ags after playing 1 season at Oral Roberts, where she made All-Conference Honorable Mention. Word on Taylor is that she can fill it up from 3 point range, but she was also a strong rebounder and defender at Oral Roberts.
- Shlonte Allen (#10 5-8 Jr TR) was the top JC guard in the country at Trinity Valley Community College, where she played two years and was part of two NJCAA champions. She averaged 18.5 ppg and had a high of 52 last February. Shlonte may not see the court for a while due to an injury.
Preseason rankings are problematic (See S. Carolina football), but as fans we look at them anyway. Back in April, ESPN's Charlie Creme put the Ags at #4 in his too early preseason rankings. Creme's rankings were before a series of high profile transfers and injuries, but these should only weaken other teams, as transfers will sit for a year before they can play. Being an internet guy who blogs WBB as a hobby, I haven't gone out and gathered fresher info from the dead-tree media. The A&M AD site (12thman.com) lists our rankings and the UK Athletics Dept conveniently gives a few of the other preseason rankings that are out there with all the teams listed.
The strength of the SEC is indicated by how a top 10 preseason ranking is coupled to predictions that the Ags will finish 3rd in the SEC, behind S. Carolina and Tennessee.S. Carolina returns almost everyone from a sweet 16 team and adds a great recruiting class. The Vols start life without Meaghan Simmons In addition, a theme from all of the coaches at SEC media days reiterated what Coach Blair said a lot last season: the whole conference has upgraded; the weaker teams are stronger than they used to be, so that while there are clear favorites, any upset in the SEC would not be too big of a shock.
On the national level, UConn is favored to threepeat, despite losing Stephanie Dolson and Bria Hartley to the WNBA. This is far from unreasonable, as long as Geno has the likes of Brianna Stewart,Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Moriah Jefferson. Someday, playing in a weaker conference might hurt the Huskies. Probably not this year. The Lady Gamecocks are most people's #2, for the reasons noted above. Notre Dame graduated two very important players, but are expected to reload rather than rebuild. Out west, Stanford may get passed by Cal, depending on how Tara Vanderveer recasts the Cardinal with no Ogumwikes in the middle for the first time since 2008.
The Ags don't face any of the preseason top 10 in the nonconference schedule, but will have several tests against ranked teams just outside of the top 10:
- DePaul in Chicago on Friday Nov 14
- Duke at home on Thanksgiving weekend (Sunday Nov 30)
- Texas in Little Rock on Dec 21 (there are a couple of preseason polls that put the sips in the top 10, but mostly they're predicted in the teens).