The women’s basketball team will face a high level of nonconference competition this year, taking on nine teams that saw postseason action last year.
The number of conference games rose from 14 to 16 this year, which means there were fewer games to schedule out of conference. As a result, the nonconference schedule has more big-name opponents than in recent years.
“In years past, the nonconference teams we’ve played weren’t necessarily the name programs,” head coach Michael Shafer said. “They were teams that were winning their leagues, but they weren’t big-name teams.”
Adding big-name teams to the deck will raise Richmond’s strength of schedule and hopefully generate a higher rating percentage index (RPI) than in years past. Maintaining an impressive RPI throughout the season could help the Spiders advance to the postseason.
“The one thing we’re trying to do is prepare our basketball team to have success in the A-10 once we get there,” Shafer said, “and if we’re not fortunate enough to win the conference tournament and get the automatic bid, then we’ve put together a schedule that will give us an opportunity to get into postseason play.”
At a joint press conference at the downtown Richmond Marriott Sept. 15, the Atlantic 10 conference announced a partnership with the city of Richmond, establishing that the next three A-10 tournaments will be held at the Richmond Coliseum. It will be only the third time the A-10 tournament as been held at a neutral venue.
“We selected Richmond because it gives us the ability to build on our record attendance from last year’s championship and provide a true March Madness environment for our women’s basketball student-athletes,” said A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade.
Although the Spiders enjoyed a postseason appearance last season, Shafer said the team had not been satisfied and was hungrier than it had been a year ago.
“I don’t think there’s any question we can improve on last year,” Shafer said. “The positive last year was we were able to get to our fifth postseason in a row. But I do believe they’re hungry, particularly because there were so many games that were close.”
The Spiders will open up their preseason with two scrimmages that will be closed to the public. Shafer said he hoped that these contests would expose matchups and combinations that the team could take advantage of during the season.
“The scrimmages are great because we play everybody in as many combinations and different looks as we can,” Shafer said.
The first official season game is against Georgetown Nov. 8, and Richmond will battle other powerhouse programs such as Miami and Liberty later in the season.
Among the 11 returning players is Gen Okoro, who was sidelined for most of last season with an ACL injury. Shafer said he hoped her rebounding and overall athletic abilities would propel the team to win close games that last year wound up in the losses column, he said.
“Gen is a game-changer for us,” Shafer said. “Her skill, athletic ability and rebounding ability are something we didn’t have last year, but I don’t believe anyone in the league had. She’s just that kind of dynamic player.
“She looks really good, and we’ve taken it pretty slow just to make sure that everything’s fine with her, but the athleticism and quickness and everything is still there.”
Okoro said, “Not being able to physically help my team was so painful for me, so I’m just so glad that’s all over.”
Junior Liz Brown is also coming back from a shoulder surgery, and brings a 6 foot 4 inch frame that “can run up and down the court incredibly well,” Shafer said. “She learned a lot by sitting out and renewing a hunger for the game last year,” he added.
The Spiders also welcome back senior Kris King, who was thrust into the position of being the team’s leading scorer last year, Shafer said. “This year, she’s gone to work as much mentally as physically to prepare for that role,” he said.
Although Shafer has yet to announce the team captains, Okoro said that the title would not necessarily dictate who the team leaders were.
“Our leaders are going to lead the team regardless of whether they’re captains or not,” she said.
Three freshman guards make up the only additions to the roster this year. One of those players, Liv Healy, “has the chance to be really special as the time goes,” Shafer said. “She’s got a lot of skills and strength that you just can’t teach.”
Healy said: “I’m a really competitive person. I don’t shy away from any pressure. I know I’m a freshman, but I think it gives me the opportunity to show my competitiveness. Even when you’re struggling, if you can work through it, then that’s a good thing. I just play.”
Shafer has assigned the team to read Jay Bilas’ “Toughness” this preseason. He hopes that reading the book will enable a different perspective on what it means to be “tough” as a player and as a person, he said.
“[Bilas] says in the very beginning that coaches say we need to be tougher all the time,” Shafer said. “But he defines it by a different standard than just being big and strong. I ask the players to share with me who the toughest person is in their life and why. It just makes them think a little bit more.”
Healy said she had enjoyed the reading, and that it had brought the team closer together before the season.
“I love that we’re doing this assignment,” Healy said. “It helps us build a relationship with Coach Shafer because he knows where we’re coming from and we know where he’s coming from.”
Contact reporter Clay Helms at firstname.lastname@example.org