MaChelle Joseph has never been one to limit expectations.
She’s not going to start this year. In fact, she may never have set the bar higher for her Georgia Tech women’s basketball team than she has for this season, especially after last season’s run to the WNIT Championship game.
On Thursday afternoon at ACC Media Day, Coach Joseph, senior forward Zaire O’Neil and sophomore guard Francesca Pan talked about those goals and all things Georgia Tech heading into the 2017-18 season.
“We haven’t set goals as far as how many wins, where we want to finish, where we want to get to in the NCAA Tournament. It’s ‘We want to do something that’s never been done before at Georgia Tech.’” said Joseph, who’ll begin her 15th season on The Flats. “We’ve played for an ACC Championship, we’ve been to the Sweet 16. It’s a lofty goal but I think it’s an attainable goal if we can be consistent night in and night out.
“I feel really good about this team. I feel good about our character, our leadership, our toughness, but we have to put it between the lines for 40 minutes night in and night out. That’s going to be our biggest challenge, staying consistent,” she added. “We can go with any different type of combination against zone, against presses, we can go big, we can go small. I love the versatility of this team. With the depth that we now have in place we can be back to our pressing, running, trapping team that we’ve been in the past.”
The Yellow Jackets were picked sixth in the ACC Preseason Poll of the league’s coaches and ninth by the media’s Blue Ribbon Panel. Individually, Pan, last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year, was selected to the Preseason All-ACC team, while freshman, and fellow Italian National Team player, Lorela Cubaj was named to the Newcomer Watch List.
The team’s rank in the coaches’ poll is up two spots from last season (the media picked Tech ninth last season as well).
Joseph is excited about what her team can bring to the table and the experience of those bringing it, especially from the senior class. There are five of them this year — O’Neil, shooting guard Antonia Peresson, point guard Imani Tilford, redshirt senior forward Elo Edeferioka, and grad student transfer Breanna Brown, who starred for three years at Oregon State. That’s one fewer than they’ve had in the previous three years.
“I always say ‘You’re only as good as your seniors.’ This year I have five seniors on the team,” she said. ”I put a lot of pressure and a lot of high expectation on these seniors. I want them to go out and leave Georgia Tech better than they found it.”
O’Neil will be a key member of that senior class, which is seeking to make its first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“Zaire’s been an impact player for us at Georgia Tech since the day she got there,” said Joseph. “Last year I thought she started to come into her own, especially at the end of the season. She was averaging a double-double throughout the WNIT and she really took on a leadership role with the team. This past summer she worked extremely hard to get herself in the best shape of her life. She’s in a position now where she can defend in the way we need her to defend without fouling. She can play at a high level at a faster-paced game. I think the sky’s the limit for Zaire.”
O’Neil feels the team will be better than last year simply because of the experience gained last year.
“A lot of games that we lost last year, that would have put us in the Tournament, were close games and games that we were the deciding factor, things where we could have been better, little things that cost us the game — free throws, fouling, rebounding,” she said. “For us to know we should have been there last year if we would have just done those little things, makes us even more confident in this year coming up. We’ve learned from those mistakes.”
Graduate student transfer Breanna Brown, who played at Oregon State for the past three years, also could loom large in the paint.
“She played in the Final Four with Oregon State and was an Pac-12 Defensive Honorable Mention,” Joseph said. “She’s a 6-4 post player who has given us a lot of depth and versatility. She’s a shot-blocker, she’s a rebounder, she can guard five positions on the floor. Having her voice and her composure, her experience around every day and being able to share those experiences has been really impactful. She is a tremendous defender. I think most of the ACC fans will remember she was guarding (former Florida State forward) Shakayla Thomas in the NCAA Tournament, this past season. At 6-4, she’s guarding a guard. I think that says a lot about her abilities.”
The national press said plenty about Pan and her abilities last season, when she became only the second Yellow Jacket in program history to win ACC Freshman of the Year. She followed that up with a strong showing over the summer with the Italian National Team and is excited to see how this season plays out.
“It was a big honor for me to be named Freshman of the Year last year because we know the ACC is the best conference in America,” she said. “We had a lot of good freshmen last year. It’s going to help me be more confident in the upcoming season.”
Cubaj is a versatile talent that has caught people’s attention. The 6-4 forward from Terni, Italy, competed in the FIBA U19 World Championships and U18 European Championships with the Italian National Team. Her ability to score and her versatility had Joseph flashing back to the days when All-ACC Second teamer and WNBA draft pick Sasha Goodlett dominated in the paint. That 2011-12 season, coincidentally, was the last season Georgia Tech had five seniors on the roster. That team also won a program-high 26 games and reached the Sweet 16.
Fletcher also will be worth watching, according to Joseph. Recruited as a two-guard, the Warren, Mich., native, got a look at the point during the team’s summer trip to Italy.
“My hardest decision is not only going to be who to start but who not to play,” she said. “Because our 14 players, even some of the players you would think in the past would maybe not get as many minutes, every day they get better and they surprise me. Our practices have been the most competitive that I’ve ever had at Georgia Tech. It’s a challenge but it’s a great situation to be in.”