Minutewomen basketball confident for upcoming season despite roster turnover and COVID concerns

NCAA approved Nov. 25 start of season

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By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

On Sept. 16, the NCAA officially approved a Nov. 25 start for Division I men’s and women’s basketball. The date was moved from Nov. 10 to allow universities more time to “create a more controlled, less populated campus environment” to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

For the Massachusetts women’s basketball team, that is more time to prepare for the upcoming season. The Minutewomen have been unable to practice together as a team so far this semester, but the NCAA ruling provided a timeline moving forward.

Starting Sept. 21, teams can begin strength and conditioning, sport-related meetings and skill instruction leading up to an Oct. 14 preseason practice start. However, UMass has yet to release a game-schedule for the upcoming season, leaving a lot of uncertainty for the team to figure out.

“It’s going to be a frenzy [to schedule games],” head coach Tory Verdi said via conference call on Sept. 25, prior to the NCAA ruling. “Normally you try to get your schedule set a year in advance, so now we’re going to have to maneuver and scramble some things around a little bit. I believe traveling is going to be off limits—going out of New England or out of state—I don’t see that happening because of quarantining, so adjustments will be made there as well.”

Travel restrictions could prove crucial in determining if the Minutewomen are eligible for NCAA championship consideration this season. The NCAA’s ruling requires 13 games be played against Division I opponents to be considered for championship play. If required to stay in-state, there are only seven other Division I women’s basketball programs within Massachusetts: Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Holy Cross, Merrimack, Northeastern and UMass Lowell. In that case, the team could consider hosting home-and-home series against each of these opponents to meet the NCAAs requirements.

While some answers about the specifics of the season are still to come, Verdi amplified how excited he is for the upcoming year. In addition to the NCAA ruling last week, the Minutewomen received good news when star Sam Breen was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA.

 

 

 

“It gives us depth at the forward spot,” Verdi said about the Breen decisions. “Sam has showed what she’s capable of on the court. To have someone with her abilities, it’s exciting for us. I think Sam could be the best scoring forward in the A-10 this year and next year. It allows us to have a lot of versatility because there’s so much we can do with her from scoring on the perimeter to scoring outside.”

Having Breen around for two more years is important for the Minutewomen in the short and long term. UMass’ leading scorer and rebounder last season, Breen will have more time to mentor some of the younger frontcourt players on the roster.

“We feel like we have all the pieces that can surround her,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “I think you start adding our backcourt, like Desiree Oliver and Destiney Philoxy and if you put them around Sam Breen and other frontcourt players like Maddie Sims and Maeve Donnelly, I think we could possibly have one of the best frontcourts and backcourts in the A-10. I’m really excited about this upcoming year and the future of our program.”

Without now-graduated sharpshooter Hailey Leidel, Breen should fill the No. 1 scoring option for the Minutewomen. Some rotation holes will still need to be filled this season, however. Guards Bre-Hampton Bey, Paige McCormick and Grace Heeps transferred this season, and forward Jessica Nelson medically retired this offseason.

Verdi expects an assortment of players to step up amidst the roster turnover, including incoming freshman Makennah White and Ber’Nyah Mayo.

“At the power forward and center spot, we have a ton of depth between Maddie Sims, Maeve Donnelly and Angelique Ngalakulondi,” Verdi said. “Makennah White is a scoring forward and with everything we’ve seen from her so far, she’s right on pace and we feel like she can make an impact. We feel like Desiree [Oliver] and Destiney [Philoxy] will start at the point guard and off-guard positions. We still are looking to develop some other players like Sydney Taylor, Madison Lowery and Ber’Nyah Mayo.”

With a taller roster, Verdi acknowledged that he may roll out some bigger lineups this season. Verdi also said the transition game is a major focus of game planning for the upcoming season.

“With Sam’s versatility, if we have to slide her to the small forward spot, we may just do that,” Verdi said. “We’re going to try to play a little faster this year and score more in transition. We’re looking to be faster offensively and score anywhere from eight to 12 more points in transition, which I think will be beneficial for our team.”

Oliver, a transfer from Temple, had to sit out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules. She averaged 5.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game for the Owls in 2018-19.

“[Oliver] is a scoring, combo guard,” Verdi said. “We expect her to be very active. I think with the combination of Desiree and Destiney ripping, driving and attacking the basket with our four’s who can all score the ball, we’re going to be able to put five players out on the floor that can all score.”

Verdi also addressed the powerful video “I’ve Had Enough” released by UMass men’s basketball player Kolton Mitchell. In allegiance with the men’s program, the women’s team has registered everyone to vote among other social justice initiatives.

“The video was absolutely awesome,” Verdi said. “As a program we’ve talked about it and we are making movements and our players are vocal. There has been a lot of dialogue amongst us and we are going to continue to talk and make sure those in the community hear our voice.”

Though the Minutewomen have not practiced as a team yet, players are on campus and have continually tested negative, said Verdi. Players have been working on individual skillsets with position coaches in the meantime.

“We’re just super excited for the opportunity to get together on the court,” Verdi said. “It’s been a long six-seven months, and we just want to get together as a team and start working out and move on.”

Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheDanMcGee.