There's one word Oklahoma women's basketball coach Sherri Coale is using to describe her team this year.
“We're just young,” Coale said at the team's media day. “We're just young and unproven and we have to learn our way and I look forward to coaching this squad down that road.”
Young would be the correct assessment of this OU squad. The Sooners have just one senior and two juniors on the roster. Sophomores and freshmen make up the rest of the group, but at least it's a deep roster, something the Sooners have lacked over the past two years.
The Sooners' youth has contributed to Oklahoma being overlooked in the Big 12 (fifth in the preseason poll) and nationally (unranked, first time since the 2004-05 season). But Coale isn't worried about that at this point.
“I think particularly in women's basketball, sometimes that preseason top-20, you just look at it and shake your head and go where does that come from and sometimes that's when we're in it,” Coale said. “I don't know that it holds much relevance whatsoever. We have to prove ourselves; we know that. We're excited about the process.”
The Sooners are not only young, but they have to replace a lot of the production now-departed Aaryn Ellenberg, Nicole Griffin and Morgan Hook accounted for. The points void left by Ellenberg is the most pressing concern, but Coale and the Sooners are counting on Peyton Little, a sophomore transfer from Texas A&M who sat out last year, to iron out some of the uncertainty.
“Peyton is a huge offensive threat,” sophomore Maddie Manning said. “She can shoot the ball, she can pull up in mid-range, she can get to the rim. I think the biggest thing is her competitive spirit. That girl is going to do anything she can to win the game and she's going to let people know it, too.”
Manning is coming off her second ACL tear in as many years and is the poster child for the unfortunate luck Oklahoma has had with injuries the past two seasons. Staying healthy throughout the year is unpredictable, but it's something Coale would love to see happen after a rough two years.
“We have had a lot of injuries and some crazy ones in the mix of everything,” Coale said. “You're tempted to look back and say, well that would've been the year. Had she stayed healthy, that would've been the year. If you ask why kids get hurt, you could ask why some kids stay healthy and you don't want to go down that road. I think we just do the best we can every day, control the things we can and be as proactive as possible.”
The additions of Manning and Little, along with standout freshman point guard Gabbi Ortiz, give the Sooners a very athletic team that has the ability to get out and run more than teams in the past.
“We've tried to play fast offensively and we've played pretty fast offensively although I think this group could excel, maybe even at a higher level just because we've got a lot guys who can get out and fill lanes and run and run with that point guard that is pushing the ball,” Coale said.
The Sooners came into last year with a veteran team that was expected to make some noise nationally. An early-season thriller with Shoni Schimmel-led Louisville made that seem like a distinct possibility. But as the season progressed, nothing ever completely clicked into place for the Sooners, and Oklahoma quietly went 18-15 with first round exits from both the Big 12 tournament and the NCAA tournament.
Coale pointed out the Sooners did a lot of good things off the court and in the classroom, but the underachieving performances grated on her throughout the year and offseason.
“I think we grew people, but from a performance standpoint on the basketball court, I think we underachieved,” Coale said. “I think as a coach you always sit on that and chew on that and wrestle with that until you have an opportunity to change it.
“We approached our offseason in a very aggressive way and we got back to the very foundation of our program: hard work and blue collar effort, selfless behavior.”
A return to those things will undoubtedly help the Sooners turn things around after a poor (by OU standards) season a year ago. The team understands preseason rankings don't matter a lick, but that doesn't mean they can't draw something from them.
“Obviously it kind of hurts, but I think it motivates us,” junior Nicole Kornet said. “We're out to prove this year because last year, we did what we did. It happened. You can't keep drilling on the fact our record was 18-15, we just have to prove to others that it's not going to be that way this year.”
PG- Gabbi Ortiz
SG- Peyton Little
SF- Sharane Campbell-Olds
PF- Maddie Manning
C- Kaylon Williams
The Sooners very easily could have two starters from last year—Nicole Kornet and Gioya Carter—coming off the bench this year. The addition of Little and Manning provides a huge boost in depth.
MVP: Sharane Campbell-Olds
Campbell-Olds (she got married in the offseason) has been a steady player for the Sooners for the past three years and as the only senior, her veteran leadership will be counted on in more ways than points and rebounds.
Most Improved: Gioya Carter
Sherri Coale said at media day Carter has grown a lot and has learned a lot from a rough freshman season. Carter's scoring ability is going to be very important coming off the bench for the Sooners this year.
Best Newcomer: Peyton Little
Little sat out last season after transferring from Texas A&M last year but it primed and ready to go this season. She's as close to a pure scorer as the Sooners have on the roster and she'll be counted on to fill a significant portion of the void left by Aaryn Ellenberg.
Three big games:
1. 11/28 vs. Kentucky in Paradise Jam Tournament
-Kentucky finished last season No. 10 in the country and has built itself into a very strong program. This will be a good test for the young Sooners on a neutral floor.
2. 12/17 at Duke
-Duke came to Norman last season and left with a 94-85 win. Now the Sooners make the return trip to Durham to face the Blue Devils on the road. A hostile environment at Cameron Indoor Stadium awaits.
3. 1/14 vs. Texas
-The Longhorns were picked as the No. 1 team in the preseason Big 12 poll, but this is an early conference matchup, a game that can set the pace for either team. The Sooners can begin to prove a lot of doubters wrong with a win here.