Per Chance To Dream
Coach Jo likes where the women’s basketball team is, is going early on
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
For a lot of college coaches, not returning their top two scorers, top two rebounders, top two free throw shooters and top two assist-makers is the stuff of dreams — bad dreams.
Don’t count Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball coach MaChelle Joseph among them.
Joseph faced that exact potential dilemma in looking ahead to 2016-17.
Yet she not only hasn’t lost any sleep over the graduation of Aaliyah Whiteside, last season’s leading scorer in the ACC, and Roddreka Rogers, the team’s leading rebounder the last two seasons, the completion of eligibility of locker room leader Irene Gari and the transfer of fiery point Ciani Cryor, it sounds like she’s sleeping better than ever, with visions of ACC wins and an NCAA Tournament bid dancing in her head.
The key to these happy Z’s is focusing on what she has.
“We are returning probably the most talented team, the deepest team, the hardest-working team that I’ve ever put on the court here in the 13 years I’ve been at Georgia Tech,” said Joseph, the winningest coach in program history, who will open the ‘16-17 campaign with a 252-162 record. “The first couple of practices have shown me that we have an opportunity to do something very special with this group.”
Joseph, not one to overplay the optimism card, likes the idea of having seven returning players from last year’s team, starting with a healthy Zaire O’Neil.
The junior forward was limited to 24 games (one start), coming back from a knee injury last season but Joseph believes O’Neil will return to the form her freshman season, when she averaged 11.3 points (29th in the ACC), 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 on the offensive end (8th), with 1.6 assists and 1.2 blocks (12th) in 31 games (21 starts).
The return is a sight for sore eyes and a welcome one. Joseph believes fans may not believe their eyes when watching this year’s version.
“Last year was really tough on her. It was really tough on me to watch her struggle,” said Joseph. “She wanted to come back for her team. She knew we needed her but she wasn’t ready mentally. She’s lost weight, she’s gotten in better condition, she’s definitely not only back to where she was as a freshman but she’s advanced. Early on in practice she’s had that kind of take-charge mentality. It’s great to have a presence inside that demands the ball on every possession. That’s the way Zaire is.”
Joseph also likes the options as far as those of whom O’Neil will be demanding the ball. The point guard battle between incumbent starter, junior Imani Tilford, and incoming grad student transfer Cha’Ron Sweeney, who lit it up in her three years at Eastern Michigan (17.6 ppg, 3.7 apg, 2.0 spg), is feisty, just the way Joseph likes it.
“She and Imani are really battling it out for that position,” she said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had two quality, experienced point guards. So now we have a junior and a senior point guard. I think that was a weakness of ours heading into last season, just the depth at that position. I feel like we were able to answer that question, bringing in Cha’Ron. She is definitely going to make a contribution immediately. Then we’re able to slide Antonia Peresson over to shooting guard, which is her natural spot.”
Peresson, the team’s leading three-point shooter last season (64 3PT FGMs, at 34.6 percent), won’t be the only one more comfortable in letting fly from the perimeter. Joseph is pleased with the progress Tilford has shown from downtown. Last season Tilford took only three shots from behind the arc, even with opponents daring her to do so. Joseph believes that Tilford will make teams pay for that this season.
“Imani spent the entire summer in the gym working on her perimeter shooting,” she said. “That’s been an Achilles’ heel for her and for us because we were playing four against five on the offensive end because nobody was guarding her. I challenged her to step up in the offseason and address that weakness. I feel like early on in practices she’s been able to establish herself as a consistent perimeter shooter and that’s a huge change. I honestly believe the next two years it’s going to pay off.”
The Jackets should expect an immediate payoff from several new faces that have yet to take the floor for them. That includes junior forward Elo Edeferioka, a player on the Nigerian Senior National Team, who redshirted last season after transferring from Hofstra, guard Kaylen Pugh, a transfer from Ohio State, who sat out last year, and a bumper crop of freshmen, one Joseph calls “probably the most talented four freshmen that I’ve ever recruited to Georgia Tech.”
The freshmen include 6-1 Italian guard Francesca Pan, fresh off her summer playing for the Italian National Team at the U-20 World Championships, 6-0 Chanin Scott, a talented all-around guard/forward, who was let out of her National Letter of Intent with Kentucky, 6-4 center Anne Francoise Diouf, a Senegal native, who starred last year at IMG Academy in Florida, and 5-7 point Zutorya Cook, who sat out last year with a torn ACL.
Joseph believes this combination of talent, energy and enthusiasm will add up to a very competitive team and a return to the glory to which Tech fans had grown accustomed from 2006-2012, when the program put together six straight 20-win seasons and made six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, capped off in 2011-12, when the squad went 26-9, 12-4 in ACC play, and reached the Sweet 16.
“With the depth and the athleticism we have we can get back to playing the way we were used to playing, 94 feet and pressing and trapping and running the way we want to,” Joseph said. “That’s been really exciting for me to see. The last couple of years we’ve had a very young team and we’ve kind of taken our lumps in the ACC.”
Lumps taken from ACC competition — against whom Joseph has authored six winning seasons in the past 10 years and two more that are .500 — and the lumps it may take from its beefed-up non-conference schedule she put together, may be nothing compared to the lumps they’re giving each other in practice.
But that’s something Joseph will neither complain about nor attempt to curb. She kind of likes — REALLY likes, actually — the competitiveness.
“We built this program on being blue-collar,” she said. “The thing I’ll say about this team, the identity that’s really emerged is their work ethic and their chemistry. They don’t care who plays. They just want to win. I haven’t seen as many players dive on the floor after loose balls or take charges or battle each other for rebounds as I’ve seen in this group, top to bottom.
“It’s not one or two players as it’s been the last three years. It’s literally 14 players out there every single day competing,” she continued. “Honestly, I feel like this team is very special. I can’t tell you who the best player is and every night there might be a different player emerge as the leading scorer. That’s okay with me. In the past, we’ve had to try to get shots for one player or two players because we had to play to our strengths. Now we have tremendous balance and that’s exciting.”
Pleasant dreams, ACC coaches….