A return to the NCAA Tournament is front and center on the minds of the Virginia Cavaliers.
By Charlene Curtis for theACC.com
Twenty-one NCAA appearances including three Final Fours define the University of Virginia's rich women's basketball tradition and history. As such, WNIT post-season bids over the past two seasons are not the standard by which the Virginia Cavalier program wants to be measured.
Debbie Ryan, who is entering her 31st season at the helm of the Virginia Cavaliers and who will be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame with the Class of 2008, is certain her team knows the goal is to return to the NCAA Tournament. "We are not supposed to be in the WNIT, and that's something that we are very, very clear with", Ryan said. "Our players know that. We have great leadership. We have great unity. I don't think there is anyone out there that doesn't know that."
The on-court leadership starts with senior point guard Sharnee' Zoll. Zoll, who led the ACC in assists over the past two seasons, has a chance to become Virginia's career assists leader. Needing 160 assists to tie former All-American and Olympian Dawn Staley's career assists record, Zoll has had the magic number 729 written on her sneakers since her first year in a Cavalier uniform. The assists goal, however, has always been secondary to the Cavaliers getting back to the NCAA Tournament. Zoll said she has some "unfinished business" in reference to returning to the NCAAs.
When asked about the importance of her leadership now that she is a senior, Zoll commented, "The biggest thing that I'm working on this year is not showing my emotions on my sleeves. I can't show my frustrations. When everything is going wrong, I can't be the one hanging my head. I need to be the one picking everybody else's heads up. If I hang my head, I give them a reason to hang theirs or give them an excuse…. I need to be a team leader. I need to stay positive."
Zoll, along with junior forward Lyndra Littles and sophomore guard Monica Wright, give Virginia experience and proven productivity on the perimeter and in the paint. Speaking of Zoll, Littles, and Wright, Ryan said, "We have a trio of players coming back that were ranked fairly high offensively in the ACC last year. (Those three are) as good as any threesome in the conference."
Littles, an All-ACC second-team honoree last season, was one of the most consistent players in the conference. Recording 15 double-doubles to lead the ACC, Littles led Virginia in both scoring and rebounding averaging 17.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
Wright, a unanimous selection as the 2007 ACC Rookie of the Year, led the Cavaliers in steals with 67 and was second on the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game. Wright spent the summer honing her skills and winning a gold medal with USA Basketball's U19 World Championship Team.
On paper, last year's Virginia team was well on its way to moving back into the upper echelon of the ACC and back into the NCAA Tournament. But a knee injury to junior college All-American Aisha Mohammed in the FIBA World Championships and the mid-semester departures of Takisha Granberry and Denisha Kenion left the Cavaliers thin in the post and at the guard positions. At times, Wright, Littles, and Zoll, made fans forget that Virginia was operating without key players on the perimeter and in the post. At other times, the lack of depth was evident both at the guard position and in the paint.
Fortunately, Mohammed is now ready to make her debut in a Virginia uniform. Ryan is excited about the low post play of Mohammed and believes that Mohammed will have an immediate impact on the Cavaliers' inside production. "She is doing well now," said Ryan when speaking of Mohammed's recovery from last year's ACL surgery. "She's going to help provide significant inside presence that we haven't had for some time. She is very strong inside."
Providing depth on the perimeter are sophomores Paulisha Kellum and Enonge' Stovall. Kellum returns after playing her best basketball down the stretch of a solid freshman campaign. She scored in double figures in six of the last nine games.
Stovall is back in uniform after taking a year away from the Cavalier program. Ryan stated, "(Stovall) is probably one of the best defenders I have ever coached. She's got energy to burn and is amazing (defending) on the ball."
More depth in the post and on the perimeter gives the Cavaliers a chance to improve on last year's numbers. Yet, Ryan knows that the Cavaliers must step up their defensive output and take better care of the ball on offense.
"There are two things that we have to improve", Ryan said. "Number one, our field goal percentage defense has to improve dramatically, and that is something we work on every single day. Virginia teams have never had a defensive team like we had last year. We scored plenty of points to win most our games last year. We just did not defend the way we should have."
"The other thing we must improve is the assist to turnover ratio," Ryan said. "The rest of my team (excluding Zoll who was second in the ACC in assist to turnover ratio) had better start taking care of the basketball."
With the return of the "big three", improved depth in the post and on the perimeter, renewed focus on offense and defense, and a Hall of Fame coach at the helm, the Virginia Cavaliers could very well find their way back to NCAA Tournament.