|We're expecting another big year for Liberty's Rininger.|
1. James Madison
Yes, we know the Dukes lost Precious Hall for the season and we haven't forgotten that Toia and Lady graduated. The three are huge losses for the Dukes, whose consistency under Kenny Brooks is a bragging point for the program. So admittedly, we have questions about how the 2015-16 version of JMU can hold up to the teams of the last few years that have advanced to the NCAA tournament. That said, one of the best point guards in the country, Muff Mickens, returns along with Jazmon Gwathmey, MVP of the last two CAA championships. Gwathmey is loaded with talent but her shooting inconsistency has prevented her from becoming a dominant player during the regular season. This could be her year -- especially given her improvement on the perimeter. Love the energy Ashley Perez brought to this group last season, and bigs Kayla Cooper-Williams and Savannah Felgemacher could be the rare freshmen on Brooks' team that get ample playing time. Then there's Da'Lishia Griffin, a junior who has waited her turn, and finally could get it, bringing the size and post presence JMU needs to be nationally relevant yet again.
The Lady Flames are a beacon of consistency and size, and 2015-16 is no different. Bigs Ashley Rininger (the Big South Preseason Player of the Year) and Katelyn Adams will get help from a finally healthy Catherine Kearney, and Sadalia Ellis is a heady point who can set the table for them. Also expecting shooter Jaymee Fisher-Davis to drive more given her excellent free-throw capability. Like JMU, this program does not underachieve.
3. Virginia Tech
On paper, it's hard not to love this Hokie team. Other teams are looking for answers to fill holes; the Hokies have no major holes. While so many teams around the state have question marks at key positions, the Hokies are a proven commodity. They are deep with a talented pool of freshman coming in, including 6-3 Kelly Koshuta, a five-star ESPN recruit, and Chanette Hicks, who should make an immediate impact at the point. Remember how Regan Megarity started last year before a calf injury ended her season five games in? (Scoring 25 in her collegiate debut, she averaged 14 ppg and 10 rpg before being sidelined.) She's back and healthy, ready to join a starting lineup that includes the 6-3 Vanessa Panousis and stat-sheet filler Taijah Campbell. Then there's Rachel Camp, an All-ACC freshman from a year ago, who averaged 11.4 ppg. Yes, we love this VT team, which should easily be Dennis Wolff's best.
The Cavaliers haven't made the NCAA tournament in six years and will miss Sarah Imovbioh, who transferred to South Carolina for her senior season; she led the team in rebounding and was second in scoring. Faith Randolph and Mikayla Venson bring double-digit scoring back, but Virginia needs an infusion of new blood to make an impact in the ridiculously deep ACC. Leading candidates are 6-3 forward Mone Jones, the 11th ranked recruit at her position, according to ESPN, and eligible transfer J'Kyra Brown, a 5-11 guard from East Carolina. Should the Cavs be 3 here given their dominance over Tech? Maybe, but we gave VT the edge just slightly.
Michael Shafer is lavish with his praise of the guard tandem of Janelle Hubbard, Lauren Tolson and Micaela Parson, perhaps the best in the Atlantic 10, but post play is a question mark. A healthy Karleigh Wike and Rennie Harrison, both physically stronger than a year ago, are prospects, and we're eager to see what Finnish forward Tuuli Menna can add. The Spiders are ready given the summer European tour that combined basketball with the sights. Rebounding might be tough, especially against a conference stalwart like George Washington. But ODU/Richmond on Friday at the Robins Center led us to give the Spiders the 5 spot over the Lady Monarchs.
6. Old Dominion
If we had to pick the top player in the state, we'd go with Jennie Simms, who scored 43 in ODU's exhibition, showing what looks to be already mid-season form for our pick for Conference USA POY. The question is who's going to help Simms get it done? It should be a breakout year for Destinee Young offensively, and ideally Ije Ajemba will be able to add points to her already solid defense. It wouldn't surprise us if the Lady Monarchs figure it out in time for the CUSA tournament, but finding the right mix early will be a challenge. Though just a freshman, MaKayla Timmons showed potential at point during preseason; now the hard part begins.
Beth O'Boyle's bunch has a new practice gym with all the bells and whistles (underwater treadmill machine sounds cool), and the Rams should be a more confident team under O'Boyle, in her second season from Stony Brook. Former ODU point Galaisha Goodhope will bring a scoring touch, trusty handle and defense to match for a team that will welcome her in the spring semester. VCU must shoot the ball better than a year ago when poor free-throw shooting and indecision affected its offense. O'Boyle said much of the summer was spent on individual shooting and team offense, and we're eager to see an improved Isis Thorpe and Adaeze Alaeze. Another boon: Rebounding ace Jessica Ogunnorin, 6-1, has transferred in from Stony Brook and is immediately eligible.
Do we think the Pirates will be the eighth best team in the state by season's middle? No. We're tempted to move them much higher, but we'd like to see David Six's bunch play a few games first. Defensively, we're not worried, and Malia Tate-DeFreitas is our bet to repeat as MEAC Player of the Year. We look forward to seeing the Pirates perhaps more than any other team because you never know what David Six has in store.
9. George Mason
No question about Taylor Brown. The A10 scoring leader is one of the five best players in the state. Coach Nyla Milleson has also lauded this group that includes transfers Kara Wright and Bridget O'Donnell isn't short on work ethic, making for the competitive practices she has yearned for since taking over the program. Among the most intriguing newcomers, we think, is Chinyere Bell. Surrounded by a team full of transfers, she is a freshman who pulled down 16 rebounds to go with 10 points in the team's only exhibition. We can't wait to see what the 5-11 forward, who also lettered four years in track, will bring to her first season of collegiate ball.
10. William and Mary
We'd like to pick the Tribe higher and think Ed Swanson has laid the foundation for W&M to be the most improved team in the state alongside Tech. They'll miss Jazmen Boone, but three of the top four scorers return, including Marlena Tremba. W&M experienced postseason success last season for the first time in Division I. The stock is rising for 2015-16.
Love the frontcourt with Janayla White and Jayda Worthy, and of course, preseason first-team PG Aisha Foy. But preseason ACL tears to Brittany Allen and Claudia Quevado hurt the Highlanders depth. Looking forward to seeing freshman Jen Falconer making the start on Friday against George Mason.
12. Norfolk State
They'll miss Rae Corbo, but Kayla Roberts and Koryn Lawrence bring needed experience. Depth will be an issue, but the Spartans hope to build on their promising 2014-15 season.
We have no doubt that the Lancers will improve on their 5-win season despite a brutal schedule that starts at Oregon State on Friday and continues in Harrisonburg vs. JMU on Sunday. The great news is Khalilah Ali and Daeisha Brown are healthy again; early-season injuries to the starters was a huge blow to Longwood a year ago.