Well our Wildcats are on a slump, going 1-4 in the past three weeks after a very promising 9-1 start that had them earning votes in the AP poll. Their RPI, once in the top 10, now sits at 46 and sinking fast.
To my unscientific eye, I think the teams appears to be wearing down from depth issues. They've played a very challenging schedule so far (strength of schedule is 32, according to RealtimeRPI.com), and injuries to Brittany Orban (now officially ruled out for the season), Dannielle Diamant and others have forced the healthy players to log a ton of minutes.
But head coach Joe McKeown, ever positive, still believes in his team. I talked with him yesterday, before the loss to Minnesota, and he gave me some injury updates and his outlook on the Big Ten.
SoP: How's the team look to you? Is this the team you thought you'd have, back in the preseason?
JM: Well, we lost Brittany Orban, senior captain, one of the best players in the Big Ten. She got injured with an ACL tear, out for the season; her career is basically over. That was a big setback from the standpoint that she's been our hardest working player, a senior, been a starter for four years, had a lot of intangibles. And then Dannielle Diamant has been out three of the last four games. The injury bug has really affected our team, but you have to fight through it. You can't use it as an excuse. You have to be ready, and it gives other people an opportunity to step up.
SoP: What's been the team's focus in practice this past week?
JM: The biggest thing was just getting people used to playing certain positions. We've had some people playing out of position. And also working defensively on being able to find the best players on the other teams and not let them beat you. That's what hurt us against Iowa, their best players, we left them open at the wrong times, and they made us pay.
SoP: You said before the season started that you expected this team to run and gun a lot more than in previous years. Is that still your game plan during Big Ten play?
JM: We're trying. We were down to six players the other day, so you have to balance that out with the 40 minutes of the game. We're not where we want to be. When you and I spoke earlier in September, we had 13 healthy players. I lost a really great athlete with La'Terria Taylor. She's a terrific transition player, both ends of the floor. Inesha Hale has been out. We finally got her cleared to play a couple of minutes against Iowa. So it's been tough. We haven't had a full roster at practice all year. That's the one thing that has hurt us more than anything in the last four weeks, just to make [practice] competitive and game-like. It's real important for us to start practicing again at a high level.
SoP: Do you expect La'Terria to come back soon?
JM: We're still waiting on that.
SoP: Kate Popovec is another player that's been out. What's her prognosis?
JM: Yeah, it's a wait and see type thing with her, too. We've had some difficult injuries. If you had asked me in September, I feel like her and Brittany and La'Terria and Inesha would have been a big part of what we'd be doing, so we're waiting to see what happens. But, hey, I'm excited about the people who have had opportunities to step up. They're learning. We're 10-4, and we played a real tough non-conference schedule. Probably the most interesting statistic, and I'm not a big stat guy, but we're 5-1 on the road. A lot of teams in the nonconference play a lot of home games. We've won at UNLV, at LSU, at Missouri, at Loyola, at Central Michigan, which beat Purdue a few weeks ago. Those are some hard places.
SoP: I don't mean to dwell on the negative, but looking at the four losses, is there a common theme you and your staff has seen that you can improve on?
JM: Don't dwell on the negative, I'm trying to dwell on the positive. Going back to DePaul, it was a tie game 77-77, but their best player beat us, and that's the biggest consistent theme in those losses. Same with KSU. Their best player had 29 points against us. Same thing with Iowa. Jaime Printy is one of the top players in the league. I feel like we've struggled to shut down the top player on the other team.
SoP: You've certainly gotten some big contributions by your freshmen, and when I talked to you before, you said they'd need to be playing like sophomores by February. We're one month out from February, so how do think they're coming along?
JM: I'm really excited about how our three freshmen have stepped up at times. They're getting valuable minutes. I don't think any coach knows or can predict a whole lot how you're going to be as a freshman coming in out of high school. You can go off of what you've seen in the recruiting process, but to get on the court and deal with all the changes that come with being a college freshmen, I think they've have handled it very well. Morgan [Jones] and Karly [Roser] have handled playing a lot of minutes. Their confidence is really high right now. That's what I want. I want their confidence to be really high.
SoP: On the other end of the experience spectrum, you've got Kendall Hackney, who is your most consistent scorer, and Dannielle Diamant looks to me like the most improved player on the team. What have been the biggest factors in their success?
JM: They're the buffer to losing Amy Jaeschke and Beth Marshall, who had an incredible two year run for us. I think Dannielle needs to get healthy. She was playing great before she got hurt, so we have to get her back. Kendall, she has to be a senior as a junior. She's the most experienced player we have, as far as minutes played, All-Big Ten last year as a sophomore. She's got to be consistent in her leadership. We only have one senior now with Brittany being out, so in a way, those guys have to be seniors as juniors.
SoP: You haven't had much of a bench to work with, given all the injuries, but Allison Mocchi has stepped up nicely into the starting lineup, I feel, and Tailor Jones seems to be coming on real strong lately. What more do you want to see from your role players?
JM: Tailor, her and Ally both, have been playing well and they can play multiple positions. They're really good utility players, they're the type that can play second base, shortstop, the outfield, and not skip a beat. Tailor is like having another starter. She plays a lot of minutes. Meghan [McKeown] is maybe our best shooters or one of them. She's given us hustle plays, quality minutes. I think if we can keep getting that, we'll be OK. Those guys have to all contribute.
SoP: Now that we're entering Big Ten play, how do you think the league will shake out? Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State are all up there in the rankings, like everybody expected, and you've also got Michigan and Nebraska playing well.
JM: It's an interesting league. Last two years, I felt like we made great strides, and we were able to win on the road at tough places, like Ohio State, at Michigan, at Wisconsin. That's the key. You have to hold serve at home and steal some games on the road, like any conference, but the interesting thing in the Big Ten is that eveybody can beat everybody on any given night, kind of like the NFL. That's what's kind of different about our league, as opposed to some of the other BCS conferences, where you might have some separation. We don't have that.
SoP: Where do you see your team slotting in the Big Ten pecking order?
JM: No idea. We're going to compete. Last year, we swept Ohio State, who ended up winning the Big Ten tournament and got to the Sweet 16, but we also lost games that kept us out of the NCAA tournament. It's hard to speculate. I think it's a league that's certainly capable of sending five, six teams to the tournament. There's no reason to me why we can't have more than half our league in the NCAA tournament, and I'd like to be one of them.
SoP: Speaking of tournament, given how close you guys were the last couple of years, has that word started coming up in practice? Or is that still far off?
JM: Right now, you don't even talk about those things. Especially when you struggle, you're just trying to get better every day, to be honest, trying to focus on your strengths and getting better with the things that have hurt us, trying to learn from the games we've lost.