Bears back on the hardwood: Basketball season preview
Tuesday night in Chicago, four of the most storied Division I men’s basketball programs—Duke University, Michigan State University, University of Kansas and University of Kentucky—started the season in earnest. This weekend, two of the most storied programs in Division III—the two Washington University basketball teams—will tip off their seasons. With both teams ranked in the top 10—the men at nine and the women at 10—there will plenty of reason for eyes around the country to turn to the Francis Fieldhouse this winter. For the women, this season will be about how a perennial contender manages in the first year without a talismanic head coach. On the men’s side, this season will be defined in the playoffs, when the talented group of seniors take one last shot at an NCAA tournament run.
The narrative for this year’s women’s basketball Bears was set all the way back on March 22, when Nancy Fahey was announced as the new head coach for the University of Illinois. It is difficult to overstate the impact Fahey had on the program. She took over the women’s basketball team in 1986—only seven years after it was founded—and in her 31 years in St. Louis led the Bears to 23 UAA titles and five national championships. The court is literally named after her—half-named after her at least.
It would be unrealistic to expect new head coach Randi Henderson to reach the peak of the Fahey era in her first year as head coach. Fahey herself took a while to reach that peak, waiting four years before reaching a Final Four and another seven after that before taking home the ultimate prize.
However, Henderson comes into her career as a Bear with a pretty sterling resume. She is coming off two years as assistant coach at Division I University of North Carolina at Charlotte, but she also has 10 years as a Division III head coach under her belt. In nine years as head coach at Coe College, she only had a single losing season, finishing her tenure with a .630 winning percentage.
Henderson inherits a talented team from Fahey. The star of the show will likely be junior Madeline Homoly. The 6-foot-2 forward was named a pre-season All-American by D3Hoops.com earlier this month, and she averaged 14.4 points and 6.7 boards in her first season with the Bears after transferring from the University of South Dakota for her sophomore season. Relegated to the bench last year behind fellow Division I transfers Zoe Vernon and Jen Dynis, expect to see Homoly take an even more central role in the Wash. U. offense this year.
However, the Bears are not going to simply spend four months dumping the ball inside, and Henderson has plenty of talented guards on her roster. Wash. U. features one of its best-ever shooting backcourts; senior Natalie Orr and junior Rachael Sondag are first and third in three-point shooting percentage in program history. Coming off the bench last year, junior Becca Clark-Callender led the team in assists, and her playmaking ability at the point guard position will likely be another key for the Bears’ offense.
When the Wash. U. women’s basketball team takes the court against Luther College Friday night, it will do so without Nancy Fahey for the first time since 1985, opening a brand-new era in the Bears’ history books. The Fahey chapter finished with a 26-3 record and UAA championship. The opening of the Henderson chapter will be written Friday.
While the women’s basketball season will likely be defined by change, the men’s will likely be defined by continuity. Mark Edwards—the Bears’ longtime coach who gives his name to the first half of the Edwards-Fahey court—still prowls the sideline. And Wash. U. will more than likely start five seniors, the majority of whom have played heavy minutes for most of their collegiate careers.
If the crop of seniors can be said to have a star, it is senior Andrew Sanders. Selected as pre-season All-American by not one but two separate publications, Sanders comes off a junior season in which he was the third-highest scorer in the UAA. He is a talented and efficient inside scorer, notching a career-best 54.1 shooting percentage last year, even while taking a higher volume of shots.
While Sanders will probably be the team’s leading scorer, and may pick up most of the accolades, he is far from the only key senior on the team. Senior David Schmelter will man the five spot for the Bears. Schmelter was last year’s leader in rebounds and blocks.
Senior point guard Kevin Kucera also returns for another year running the Wash. U. offense, after leading the team with 6.4 assists per game. Kucera was an all-UAA selection as a junior, and was also second on the team in scoring, able to both explode to the hoop and create a jumper off the dribble.
After a year as one of the first men off the bench, senior Jake Knupp will join Kucera in the backcourt for playmaking duties. The Bears will count on Knupp for another season of mistake-free basketball, after leading all of Division III in assist-to-turnover ratio last year.
Rounding out the senior-centric starting lineup will be forward Matt Highsmith. After starting 13 games as a sophomore, Highsmith was constrained to the bench last year. Highsmith, however, thrived in his role off the pine and averaged double-digit points for the first time in his career.
Edwards also has plenty of players to turn to off the bench. Junior Marcus Meyer was a key role player last year and should become an even bigger offensive cog this year. Sophomore Matt Nester also returns after being a key contributor last year, and sophomore classmate Hank Hunter will look to get significant minutes as a forward off the bench after missing his entire rookie season with injury. One freshman to watch for the Bears is guard Jack Nolan, who averaged 17.5 points per game in high school and was an Illinois Mr. Basketball finalist as a high school senior.
Ultimately, this season will be last hurrah for the starting five seniors in the playoffs. While all five have had impressive collegiate careers, their postseason record leaves something to be desired. As a group, they have won a single NCAA tournament game, their first round victory over Wilmington College last year.
No Wash. U. men’s basketball player has been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009. This group of seniors is poised to maybe break that streak, boasting a rare level of collective experience. If they can get past that second round hurdle, who knows? The last time the Bears made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, they won the whole thing.