Womens hoops preview: Backcourt
One of the primary traits that head coach Kellie Harper looks for in creating her ideal basketball team is the ability to score, rebound and play aggressive defense from all five positions on the floor.
It's a philosophy that helped the former Tennessee All-American produce three consecutive 20-win seasons in her five years at Western Carolina. And though she arrived at NC State last year tasked with directing a team filled with players recruited by her predecessor, Kay Yow, Harper successfully incorporated that playing philosophy with the skill sets of her personnel to produce her fourth straight 20-win campaign, and the Pack's 22nd overall.
The key to that unexpected success was the play of a group of guards who had lost the team's leading scorer from 2008-09 (Shayla Fields) and who began the season with a freshman at the shooting guard position. By season's end, the trio of freshman Marissa Kastanek, redshirt junior Amber White and senior Nikitta Gartrell had produced 1,025 of NC State's total of 2,195 points scored (46.7 percent), 411 of the team's 1,313 rebounds (31.3 percent) and 318 of the team's 640 turnovers (49.7 percent).
A new offensive scheme, an up-tempo, aggressive mindset at both ends of the floor and Kastanek's initial struggles with a midseason switch to the point guard spot can explain most of the miscues. But that switch also produced experience at both positions for both Kastanek and White, allowed redshirt sophomore Emili Tasler vital minutes in relief after spending two entire years sidelined by injuries and laid the foundation for what potentially could be one of the most versatile backcourt combinations in recent Pack memory.
With just one experienced starter returning inside this season - junior forward Bonae Holston, last year's leading scorer and rebounder - Harper will be counting heavily on the experience of her perimeter players to raise the level of their game after last year's transitional period.
"I think we cam expect more of them sooner," she said. "We know we'll have to pick up the slack in scoring missing from Kitta [11.2 points per game, second to Holston], but I'm excited about the versatility of this group."
Assistant coach Jon Harper, who oversees the Pack's perimeter players, believes the five returning veterans should help NC State improve in two areas where the Pack struggled last winter: shooting (the team finished 10th in the ACC in shooting at 38.4 percent, and the Pack guards shot 35.2 percent) and offensive rebounds (the Pack was 11th in the conference, averaging just 14.3 caroms per game).
"Knowing what we expect and having learned our offensive schemes should help improve our shooting," he said. "Our offensive rebounding was nowhere near where we wanted, and we're stressing that a lot again this year, but again, that year of learning and understanding what we want and expect has helped them get ready for this year."
White, a fifth-year senior, is once again expected to see action at both guard positions after splitting last season at the two spots with Kastanek. The hope is that with White coming off her first full season since 2007-08 (she missed the entire '08-09 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon) and showing tremendous improvement in her shooting accuracy and range in preseason, the Pack coaches can play her the majority of the time at the point.
"She's been shooting a percentage in practice that, if she keeps it up in games, is going to make her very tough for people to guard since she's already so strong in getting to the basket," Kellie Harper noted.
Kastanek, a natural shooting guard, is also showing the positive effects of a strong offseason after a year in which she broke the freshman record for three-point field goals attempted (182) and came within one trey of tying the mark for made three-pointers made (66) set by Jennifer Howard in 1993-94. Kastanek's 10.9 points per game ranked second among all ACC freshmen last season and, combined with her 35.7-percent accuracy from the arc (fifth best in program history), helped make her only the third Pack player ever to be named ACC Rookie of the Year.
"She's worked on her mid-range game to complement her three-point shooting," Kellie Harper said, "We want her at the two because that's where she's most comfortable, but it's good to have that versatility with her and Amber able to play both positions. We moved her last year because it helped us in our rotations and half court, but it will help us more this year if we can keep her at the two spot."
Tasler, one of the biggest surprises of last year (averaging 16 minutes of action a game after spending two consecutive years on the bench due to injuries), is also a combination guard capable of playing either of the two spots.
"She'll only get better because she has that whole year of playing and practice time now she didn't have before," Kellie Harper said. "She made huge shots for us last year [including 23 treys], and if you can shoot well, we'll find a way to get you out there."
Backing up that trio will be junior Kim Durham, who has made tremendous progress since walking on the team two years ago.
"She may have more natural basketball ability and knowledge than anyone on the team," Kellie Harper said. "She's limited by her size, more so on defense than offense because it's hard for her to match up with an opponent. But if we need someone to take a shot, we'll give her the opportunity to take it."
Another proven outside threat is senior Brittany Strachan. At 6-3, Strachan is listed as a forward, but will play more of a third guard or wing in NC State's four-out offensive scheme, similar to Gartrell's role last year. The Kernersville native is coming off the best shooting year of her career to date, hitting 44.1 percent of her shots a year ago (after averaging just 29.0-percent accuracy her first two seasons) and leading the ACC in three-point shooting accuracy last season (41.9 percent, 38 of 93).
"Brit is a lot better than she was this time last year," Kellie Harper pointed out. "She's defending so much better, she's shooting and rebounding well - she just looks more comfortable and confident."
Along with the expected improvement of their returning veterans, the coaches are also excited by the potential shown so far by the team's three perimeter newcomers, who bring not only more versatility and options for player combinations but added physical skills that have been in short supply in recent years.
"We emphasized basketball savvy in our recruiting, kids who are not only gifted physically but who can score, pass and play defense," Kellie Harper said. "These kids can do all that."
Myisha Goodwin-Coleman, a 5-6 guard from Lorton, Va., is a two-time all-state selection who was ranked as the No. 12 guard prospect in the country last year by ESPN HoopGurlz. A 24-points-per-game scorer in high school, Goodwin-Coleman is projected to be the heir apparent at point guard because of her passing skills and court sense.
"We scouted her when we were still at Western Carolina," Jon Harper said. "And if there's someone who's a pure, natural point guard, she is it - she will get you the ball at a place and time where you can score, and she has the ability to score herself."
The Pack also added size on the wing with 5-10 Nashika "Breezy" Williams, whom Harper feels could be the most physically skilled athlete in the program. A two-time conference player of the year and four-year starter at Northern Durham (N.C.) High School, Williams is strong enough to bang inside against taller players and agile enough to out-quick smaller defenders on the wing.
"She has a world of potential," Jon Harper said.
"She's still figuring out how physical this game is - she's more of a finesse player now who we'd like to see be more aggressive," Kellie Harper added. "When she does, she's going to be something special."
Devin Griffin, a 5-10 wing from Lubbock, Texas, also figured to give the Pack much-needed size outside the paint. Griffin, who averaged 19 points and seven rebounds per game player as a senior, has had her debut for the Pack put on hold while she recovers from treatment for a chronic illness that resulted in surgery to remove her thyroid gland in early October. Harper said that Griffin's recovery will be monitored over the next several weeks, and a decision on possibly redshirting her this season will be made after the Pack's opening games in November.
"This group really gives us a lot of options," Jon Harper said. "We'll still play our four-out offense [with only one player, Holston, playing a traditional post position], and at times we may even go five-out [no post]. We're still smaller than we'd like to be, but this group is very skilled, and their overall basketball knowledge is better than a year ago.
"We give our players a lot of freedom, so they have to understand our concepts. Just because someone has great stats doesn't necessarily mean she can play in our scheme, but the experience the returners picked up last year and the added knowledge the newcomers bring us should mean that we will be better able to do the things we want to do."