Oklahoma Women's Basketball: High Expectations For Sooners In 2013-14
NORMAN, Oklahoma - In life, things rarely go as planned. That adage was especially true for the Oklahoma women's basketball team last season, which lost three players for the season to injury and was down to eight scholarship players before the season was a month old.
This season, there are many reasons to be excited about the Sooners' prospects this year. The trials of last season forced the team to grow in ways it wouldn't have if it hadn't experienced those injuries. There's a lot of experience and coach Sherri Coale says this year's freshman class "might be the most prepared class (OU) has had."
However, above all else, a big reason to be excited about the Sooners this season is the growth of two of their seniors, Nicole Griffin and Aaryn Ellenberg.
Ellenberg traveled with Coale to Russia this summer to compete in the World University Games. She experienced a lot of growth there, particularly as a leader. Being the only player on the team that knew what Coale was asking of the team forced her to step into a leadership role, a place where she hasn't always been comfortable.
"I was a little bit ahead of everyone else, so she needed my help to bring them along in everything we were doing," Ellenberg said at the team's media day last month. "I had to step out of my comfort zone in that situation and it definitely given me a bit of an upper hand in using that here.
"I learned a lot about myself and what I'm capable of. At times I get comfortable, who doesn't? That definitely helped me step outside of my comfort zone and pushed me to places I didn't know I could go."
Coale noticed the normally quiet Ellenberg stepping into that role this summer, a continuation of the growth she experienced last season, when injuries forced Ellenberg to shoulder more of the leadership role.
"Vegas is a unique kid and a very unique talent," Coale said. "Watching her grow over the past six to nine months has been really special. Then I watched her this summer and had the unique opportunity to coach her in USA Basketball. I watched her explore the possibilities that maybe she had not considered for herself before."
Ellenberg isn't hyper-connected to basketball. She's very good and loves to play the game, but it's not her end-all-be-all.
"She'll be the first to tell you she doesn't wake up in the morning and think I can't wait to go play basketball," Coale said. "That's just not Vegas. I think this summer when she was exposed to what could be; it opened up a different realm for her. What I see in practice so far this year has been a kid who is willing to not only do all the little stuff, but someone who is also willing, ready and able to hold everyone else accountable to that same thing. "
Ellenberg's teammates have been quick to notice her change in demeanor as well. Ellenberg verbalized her desire to be an All-American at the beginning of practice, something that she's never said before. Point guard Morgan Hook recalled a specific instance that illustrated the change in Ellenberg.
"I airballed a shot in practice the other day," Hook said, "and any other year, Aaryn probably wouldn't have said a word to me, but she came over to me, slapped me on the back of the head and just started laughing. She's reaching out more and I think she realizes that's what she needs to do because she's got her game down, that's not a problem.
While Ellenberg has been a star, Griffin has been a work in progress for the past three seasons in the middle of the OU lineup. As a junior, she began to come into her own, averaging 11.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Now, the 6-foot-6 center is looking to make a big impact in her senior year.
"Just from knowing my game, when I slow down, I'm a way better player than if I'm going fast," Griffin said about the changes in her game. "Especially last year, I had to figure out that even if the game is going fast, I have to slow myself down so I could see where the defense is playing and if there is help coming and make my move then."
Thanks to the injuries, Griffin was forced to play 30 minutes per game a year ago, but during Big 12 play, she consistently played more than that. Having Kaylon Williams back in the lineup from injury is a huge help for Griffin.
"It's just a breath of fresh air," Griffin said after breathing a big sigh of relief. "I know if I get tired or something crazy happens or I'm in foul trouble, I have Kay-Kay to come get me and she'll continue what I'm doing."
The confidence Griffin gained a year ago has carried over to this season. Instead of the passive Griffin her teammates have grown somewhat accustomed to, she's being much more aggressive and looking to be a threat on offense.
"We've known Nicole to be kind of passive earlier when we first arrived here," Ellenberg said, "but she's being more aggressive and taking control of being that post player. She was the only one we had last year to play that five position. She knows what she's doing, she knows what she wants to accomplish and she knows how to get those other guys behind her to understand that as well."
The expectations are high, and the growth of two of the Sooners' best players, combined with an impressive freshman class could make Oklahoma a dark horse in a national picture that's anything but clear. However, the thoughts of last year's injuries will still remain and the Sooners have to suppress those.
"It may always be in the back of our mind, but that could lead us to play timid and I don't think we should play timid," Hook said. "We just have to go with what we have as of right now."
G- Morgan Hook- 9.9 points/game, 5.3 assists/game
G- Aaryn Ellenberg- 18.7 points/game, 41.4 3-point FG percentage
G- Sharane Campbell- 10 points/ game, 4.3 rebounds/game
F- Kaylon Williams- 4.8 points/game, 5.2 rebounds/game (2011-12 stats)
C- Nicole Griffin- 11.3 points/game, 4.9 rebounds/game
Best player: Aaryn Ellenberg
Ellenberg is arguably the best player in the Big 12 now that Brittney Griner is gone, and one of the less talked about great players in the country. She's already the Oklahoma career leader in 3-pointers made, and could make a run at the national record with a big season. She's always been a great player, but if she's going to be aggressive and make a run at being the best player in the country, this season could be spectacular.
Breakout player: Gioya Carter
Coale praised the freshman at the team's media day, saying the Carl Albert product brings the edge the team needs with the loss of Joanna McFarland. Carter could be a solid backup to Sharane Campbell and should bring a lot of energy to the court. The Sooners are very deep in the backcourt, but Carter should be a regular part of the rotation and should impress.
Team strength: Experience
The Sooners have three seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, and everyone who was on the team a year ago experienced a very trying season that made them tougher and closer as a team. Oklahoma has the perfect balance of capable, talented veterans and young, energetic freshmen. The experience will be huge for the Sooners during a non-conference schedule that could feature three or four games against top-25 competition.
Team weakness: Health
There really isn't a glaring problem for the Sooners this season, much like a year ago. The biggest thing for the Sooners is keeping everyone healthy. If the Sooners remain healthy, the sky is the limit for this team. However, the injury bug has already bitten the Sooners. Maddie Manning, who tore an ACL a year ago, tore her other ACL in the team's scrimmage and is out for the year. Hook dislocated her thumb in that same scrimmage, but returned to the lineup in Tuesday's exhibition.
-Nov. 24 at UCLA
The Sooners played the Bruins twice a year ago, falling in Norman, but knocking off UCLA in the NCAA tournament to advance to the Sweet 16. Playing in Los Angeles won't be easy, so this will be one of many tough non-conference games on the Sooners' schedule.
-Dec. 8 vs. No. 2 Duke
Coale called Duke perhaps the most well-rounded team in the country last month, so this will be a great measuring stick for the Sooners on the national stage. The game is in Norman, so a raucous crowd should help Oklahoma's cause. This should be a terrific game.
-Jan. 18 at West Virginia
The Mountaineers are a dark horse to win the Big 12 this year, and handled the Sooenrs without much of a problem in Morgantown a year ago. The last time the two teams played, the Sooners erased a 22-point second half deficit to defeat WVU by one point in the Big 12 tournament. Revenge is on the mind for both teams in this one.
-Feb. 3 vs. No. 10 Baylor
Baylor has dominated the conference the past four years thanks to Brittney Griner. Now, she's gone and the Lady Bears are extremely young around senior point guard Odyssey Sims. Oklahoma-Baylor has been the conference's premier rivalry since the Paris sisters arrived in Norman and if the Sooners are going to reclaim their place on top of the league, they'll need to beat Baylor.
-Feb. 16 at No. 21 Oklahoma State
The Cowgirls ran the Sooners off the court in Stillwater a year ago, so Oklahoma will be looking to make amends for that performance this year. The Cowgirls return a lot of key pieces from last year's NCAA tournament team and could make a run at the Big 12 title. Bedlam is always special, but two quality teams should only enhance the battle.
-Bonus: Preseason WNIT vs. No. 5 Lousiville
Both the Sooners and Cardinals are part of the Preseason Women's NIT tournament this year. If both teams take care of business against some of the lesser teams in the tournament, they should meet up at some point, hopefully in the championship game Nov. 17. A top-10 showdown barely a week into the season would be fantastic to see. The Cardinals, who stunned the basketball world with their upset of Baylor and run to the title game a year ago, return nine of their top 10 scorers from a year ago including Shoni Schimmel.