Haleigh Lankster with Coach Jody Adams
In 34 seasons of play, the Wichita State women’s basketball team has never made it to the NCAA tournament. Is this the month that changes? Considering how they played through a stretch of the regular season, no one would be surprised if this version of the Shockers finally breaks through.
The team won its first seven conference games to vault into first place in the Missouri Valley Conference standings. They experienced a few hiccups after that start, but their record through mid-February showed them with a win against all but one of the Valley’s teams. The team that wins the conference tournament, played March 8 - 11 in St. Charles, Missouri, gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Coach Jody Adams credits her players’ experience for this year’s success.
“We’ve just gotten older,” she said. “We finally have our first four-year senior (since Adams was hired in 2008). Experience is a huge thing because of the tempo, the physicality, just understanding what you’re going to go through in the Valley – understanding what it takes to win in the Valley.”
Adams’s own experience of winning at the highest level has to be factored into the Shockers’ rise. After playing point guard at Tennessee in 1991, she served as an assistant coach at Southern Illinois, Wake Forest, Minnesota, Auburn and Missouri - Kansas City. In her first year as a head coach, at Murray State, she led the Racers to the NCAA tournament.
It’s taken her longer to duplicate that success here, but there’s been steady progress, from 13 - 18 her first year to winning records the next two years to a good shot at 20-plus wins this year.
Leading the team this year has been a foursome of players – Jessica Diamond, Haleigh Lankster, Chynna Turner and Jazimen Gordon – who all play nearly 30 minutes a game and account for over two-thirds of the Shockers’ points. Four more players – Alex Harden, Krystle Henderson, Alicia Sanchez and Jasmine Jones – log more than 15 minutes a game, showing the team has some depth.
Adams is a firm believer that defense wins ballgames, and statistics show her team has bought into that philosophy. Through mid-February, they were holding opponents to .388 field goal percentage, 60 percentage points less than their own.
Adams also knows where she wants her team to improve as the season reaches its climax: rebounding and getting to the free throw line. The Shockers have been out-rebounded and their opponents have shot more free throws, although the margins of difference have not been huge.
Haleigh Lankster is one of a foursome of players leading the team this year.
In addition to experience, Adams thinks it was a couple of losses – several of them rather lopsided – that helped her team get to where it is today. The Shockers dropped pre-conference games to Louisiana State University, Arizona, UC Davis, Central Michigan and Kansas State. The last was by an embarrassing score of 60-34. And yet, after that game, the Shockers reeled off nine straight wins, including defeating Long Beach State in that team’s own tournament.
“You just learn a lot by getting beat and playing that caliber of teams,” Adams said.
If the Shockers fail to reach the NCAA, they’ll almost certainly be selected for the WNIT, which they also played in last year (being soundly beaten by KU).
That’s not likely to satisfy Adams, who now says her team possesses that all- important intangible known as “chemistry.”
“They’ve gotten maturity,” Adams said. “We’ve got established leaders and chemistry. That’s hard to do when you’re young and just trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing.”
K-State Wildcats Try to Find Groove
Every K-State fan wonders what’s on basketball coach Frank Martin’s mind. Or, perhaps, if he’s out of his mind. Martin’s fearsome scowl has been a fixture on the Wildcats bench since he took over in 2007. His teams have made the NCAA tournament three out of four years since then.
This year, it might take an impressive run in the Big 12 tournament to get there. The Cats have one big regular-season win — against Missouri — as well as victories over Texas, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State. But they also lost to Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas (twice), falling below .500 in conference games by last month. What Martin mostly offered up in explanation was: this conference is really good.
Which is true. But the Wildcats have also seemed outgunned at several positions, quite a change from when a big man such as Michael Beasley or a guard such as Jacob Pullen could carry the team to victory.
Not that there haven’t been bright spots. Rodney MacGruder has shown great all- around game, averaging 14 points and five rebounds an outing. Point guard Will Spradling and forward Jamar Samuels are the only other two Wildcats averaging in double figures scoring.
Samuels has shown he can compete with anyone, as when he scored 22 points in the second loss to Kansas. But he was expected to contribute those types of efforts more consistently after bulking up in the off-season.
As in past years, the Wildcats’ strengths are defense, where they’ve held opponents to .397 field goal percentage, and rebounding, corralling six more boards a game.
Heading into the stretch run, K-State was in sixth place in the Big 12, right where coaches predicted in their pre-season poll. So it can’t be argued that they’ve underperformed, especially considering their national power rating was in the mid 30s.
But neither that rating nor the Wildcats’ past tournament success — Martin has never lost in the first round and guided his team to the Elite Eight two years ago — was a guarantee that they’d be back.
KU and K-State Women’s Bubble May Burst
The KU and K-State women’s basketball squads were the epitome of NCAA tournament “bubble teams” — those with a possible shot at making the field — this year.
Both notched some nice wins, showed they belonged in the top half of the Big 12 conference and spent time in the nation’s top 25.
For the Jayhawks, junior forward Carolyn Davis lived up to expectations (she was a pre-season candidate for national player of the year), averaging 17.5 points while shooting a phenomenal 60 percent. But Davis went down with a knee injury in mid- February and will miss the rest of the season. Another junior, Angel Goodrich, set the Allen Fieldhouse record for assists in a game with 16, no aberration since she was third in the country in that category.
K-State junior guard Brittany Chambers led her team in scoring and rebounding, receiving help from seniors Tasha Dickey and Jalana Childs.
But inconsistent play or — as was clear when playing top teams — a talent deficit might destine KU and K-State for the WNIT instead. In that second-tier tournament, either could have been expected to make a serious run at the title — before, that is, Davis got hurt. Now it will probably be up to the Wildcats.