Thursday, November 10, 2016

Let the games begin! - 2016-17 edition

Longwood's Eboni Gilliam
Thank God it's Friday, right?

Or more specifically, Friday, Nov. 11 - the official opening day/night of the 2016-17 women's basketball team featuring 10 of Virginia's 13 teams. From a national perspective, the highlight is No. 14 Tennessee at JMU. But no matter which team you root for, the Nov. 11 schedule features something for just about everyone.

For more on the Tennessee-JMU game, click here. As for the rest of the slate....

Coppin State (16-16) at VCU (23-10), 11 a.m.

The 2016-17 Division I schedule begins at 10 a.m. with Robert Morris taking on NAIA Point Park, but this is one of three contests - along with Savannah State-Seton Hall and Arkansas-Pine Bluff-Ball State - that are this season's initial games involving two D-I schools. Coppin State is in transition after the loss of six seniors and the retirement of Derek Brown, the winningest coach in school history (269-237 record in 17 seasons, three NCAA tournament appearances).

What to watch for: It'll be interesting to see what graduate transfer Mooriah Rowser, who averaged 11.1 ppg at Memphis last year, will add to VCU's already-impressive backcourt rotation. I mean, if teams could only use players 5-11 and shorter, the Rams might win the national championship. But who can get it done in the VCU frontcourt? We know Curteeona Brelove (7.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg) can hold her own, but who else?

UNC Asheville (26-7) at Virginia Tech (18-14), 3:30 p.m.

Sneaky-tough tipoff to Tech's Kenny Brooks Era as the Hokies will host one of the most experienced teams in the country. UNC Asheville returns four senior starters - including Big South Player of the Year Chatori Major - and 12 letterwinners from a conference regular season and tournament championship squad.

What to watch for: The Hokies have a solid veteran core - Vanessa Panousis, Chanette Hicks, Regan Magarity, Sidney Cook, Rachel Camp and Samantha Hill - but little established depth behind this group. Which of Tech's newcomers can deliver quality minutes?

Hampton (14-17) at Northwestern (18-17), 4:30 p.m.

Typically rugged road opener for the Lady Pirates. The veteran Wildcats feature honorable mention All-America senior forward Nia Coffey, who averaged 20.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks last season, and point guard Ashley Dreary, the Division I leader in steals (4.34 spg) in 2015-16. Two years ago, Hampton fell 62-36 at Northwestern despite 23 points and 10 rebounds from Lady Pirates star Malia Tate-DeFreitas. Only three of the current Lady Pirates - Tate-DeFreitas, Kaylah Lupoe and Mikayla Sayle - appeared in that game.

What to watch for: Hampton has a pair of talented junior college transfers in Jephany Brown and Chenya Sealey and one Division I transfer in ex-VCU performer Monnazjea Finney-Smith. How quickly can these players effectively fold into Hampton coach David Six's defend-'til-you-drop system?
Duke (20-12) at Liberty (20-13), 6 p.m. (ESPN3)

The Blue Devils didn't crack the Associated Press Top-25 preseason poll for the first time since 1994. Duke still has some premium talent, though, most notably senior forward Oderah Chidom, junior forward Rebecca Greenwell and Maryland transfer guard Lexie Brown. Duke pounded Liberty 79-41 in Durham last December, but these Blue Devils bear only a slight resemblance to last year's squad - and retooled Liberty is almost unrecognizable from its 2015-16 edition.

What to watch for: With eight of last season's top nine scorers no longer around, seven freshmen breaking in and only five career college starts among the 15 players combined, well, good luck preparing a scouting report on the 2016-17 Lady Flames, Duke. Among the Liberty newcomers, we've heard some good things about freshman guard/forward Lela Sellers and junior college transfer Nene Johnson. But as for how the minutes will be doled out among this group, at this point we're not even sure Liberty coach Carey Green really knows.

Middle Tennessee State (24-9) at Virginia (18-16), 7 p.m.

First-rate matchup pitting the Cavaliers against the defending Conference-USA tournament champions. UVa. scored a road win at MTSU in last year's season opener by outlasting the Blue Raiders 70-66. Forward Brea Edwards, who dropped 30 points on Virginia in that game, has graduated, but MTSU still has star point guard Ty Petty and sophomore forward Alex Johnson, last year's C-USA Freshman of the Year.

What to watch for: We know about the Cavaliers' established core featuring Breyana Mason, Lauren Moses, Aliyah Huland El and J'Kyra Brown. But how high a ceiling Virginia has will likely be determined by how much the talented freshmen can augment this group. Who among the quartet of Dominique Toussaint, Lisa Jablonowski, Jocelyn Willoughby and the 6-9 Felicia Aiyeotan can contribute right away?

Norfolk State (3-24) at UNC Wilmington (7-23), 4:30 p.m.

Ex-NSU men's basketball assistant Larry Vickers isn't exactly new; he took charge of the women for the final 11 games last season. Still, this feels like a fresh start for the Spartans, who have augmented their roster with transfers and are out to avoid anything close to a repeat of last season's struggles.

What to watch for: Can the transfer newcomers - Gabrielle Swinson, Jordan Strode and former Longwood performer Khalilah Ali - help stabilize NSU? And can junior Kayla Roberts return to the form that made her one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's top players as a freshman?

Radford (18-13) at George Mason (12-19), 7 p.m.

In last year's season opener, the Highlanders escaped with a 66-63 overtime win over the Patriots at Radford. First-team All-Big South forward Janayla White (19 points, 8 rebounds) and running mate forward Jayda Worthy (13 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists) led the way for the winners. The Patriots, meanwhile, relied heavily on departed senior Taylor Brown in this game and throughout 2015-16 but look to get more players touches and shots this season. Redshirt seniors Kara Wright and Tiffany Padgett are poised to lead the way.

What to watch for

Radford: Guards Brittany Allen, Claudia Quevedo and Jen Falconer are all starting-caliber guards who missed all (Allen, Quevedo) or most (Falconer) of last season with knee injuries. Having these players back should, among other things, help turn a 2015-16 weakness - 3-point shooting - into a strength. This in turn should create more space inside for Radford's frontcourt stars to operate.

George Mason: Patriots coach Nyla Milleson is very excited about her quartet of freshmen - Sarah Kaminski, Jacy Bolton, DeJah Williford-Kelley, Alexsis Grate and Allie McCool. The coach said all will contribute early and one will even start, although she declined to name which one. For what it's worth, Kaminski and Bolton started Mason's lone exhibition game. Another newcomer, Niagara transfer Sylvia Maxwell, led all scorers with 15 points.

Longwood (8-22) at Marquette (14-16), 8 p.m.

The Lancers have an interesting mix of veterans and newcomers, and coach Bill Reinson acknowledges it may take some time for the group to gel. Marquette, by contrast, shouldn't need much time at all - the Golden Eagles return all five starters and 99.8 percent of last year's scoring.

What to watch for: Lancers senior Eboni Gilliam, who scored at least 15 points in five of her last nine games a year ago, is one of the most underrated players in the state.

Other openers

William and Mary (15-15) will host St. John's (23-10) on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the season opener for both.

Richmond (13-18) will host Columbia (12-17) on Sunday at 2 p.m. Columbia has its opener on Friday at UMBC.

A tournament cancellation left Old Dominion (17-17) without a game until Nov. 18, when the Lady Monarchs will host Norfolk State. It will be the Spartans' third game.

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