The Big Rebound

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Greg Williams is in search of silver linings. His constitution remains hardened and his focus resolutely sharp, but Williams could use a bit of fortuitous luck. His first three seasons coaching women's basketball at his alma mater were marred to varying degrees by injuries. Last season issues of health were overshadowed by a galling lack of productivity and general malaise that resulted in one of the dreariest campaigns in program history. It was a dark cloud.

Since things can't get worse, Williams is anticipating better. Nearly two years after joining the program sophomore forward Jackie Stanley is finally eligible (she transferred from Kansas State at the semester break of the 2007-08 season) and healthy (Stanley has been cleared following microfracture knee surgery last year). Her low-post scoring and artful passing skills should positively impact a team that lacked an interior threat and shot miserably from behind the three-point arc last season. She is the force Williams' program has lacked since Lauren Neaves graduated: a talented, tenacious presence Williams can build his offense around.

"We were disappointed in Jackie's injury a year ago when we thought we were going to get her at the semester break," Williams said. "But the silver lining in that situation is she now has three full years to play. And what Jackie gives us is that low-post offensive presence that we didn't have last year but had been spoiled the three previous years with the combination of Lauren Neaves and Valeriya Berezhynska, who for three straight years gave us a double-double in the post.

"The minute she stepped on our campus we haven't been able to guard her, and that's even when we had Val. She just has an ability to score, she has really expanded her offensive game, (and) she's increased her range. The big question mark with Jackie is her knee. It's still an unknown what workload we can put on her once practice and the season starts."

Stanley will be one of five rotation newcomers, joining a freshmen quartet that fills out a roster composed entirely of players Williams signed. Guard Jessica Goswitz, at 5-5, is the lone freshman under six feet tall as 6-1 forwards Lacey Neu and Zoe Rogers and 6-2 center Opal Taskila join a frontcourt already featuring six-foot-plus sophomores Candace Ashford (6-2), Megan Elliott, Bri Hypolite (both 6-0) and Stanley (6-2), and 6-1 junior forward Morgan Mayse.

With junior guard Memri Carmon lost for the season (Achilles), Mayse joins senior guards Tara Watts and Shyrelle Horne as upperclassmen. One great disappointment Williams endured last season was spotty play by veterans, and while he is confident in the talents of his recently-signed players, he understands the inherent risk of relying on 10 sophomores and freshmen. 

"We hope that they keep that upward progression in their careers," Williams said. "We had some players last year not continue that upward progression, which was not only surprising but unexpected. On paper you always expect players to improve their game and get better, and we're certainly going to need that out of the sophomore class."

For the first time in program history, the entire team enrolled in summer school and remained on campus, playing together and forging a bond Williams hopes will transfer onto the court. Team chemistry was solid last season but leadership was lacking, and since it is no guarantee that Watts, Horne or Mayse will supply the leadership the Owls desperately need to rebound from their 7-23 finish of a year ago, Williams is banking that the two players with the biggest talent and personality - Stanley and sophomore point guard D'Frantz Smart - will lead the way.

Resolving leadership issues is but one obstacle facing the Owls this coming season. They led Conference USA in 3-pointers attempted (569) but ranked second-to-last in 3-point shooting percentage (.279). Questions abound regarding scoring - Smart is the only returning player who averaged double figures (10.8 points/game) last year - and Mayse, who regressed following a promising freshman season. Amenemope McKinney has returned from a rare illness, but the Owls remain young at lead guard. And after guiding the Owls to the C-USA tournament final in his first two seasons on the bench thanks in large part to the full cupboard left by Cristy McKinney, Williams has led the program to a 21-41 (8-24 in C-USA) mark since.

If there was a positive to last year's misery, it's that expectations were lowered heading into this season. And with the spotlight shining elsewhere, Williams can rebuild without distraction. Given the storms Williams has experienced recently, he could use a rainbow right about now.

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It's great that the team was able to spend the summer together. That will definitely pay off during the season. Hopefully the injury bug will stay away and Williams can work with a full squad.

Hopefully Williams and the ladies will get back on track this season.

Here's hoping they can turn things around this season.

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