I see that a year-old post about Jackie Johnson and Shayne Mullaney is one of the best-read posts on the site. Obviously that's got something to do with Johnson and Mullaney now actually signing up with the Gophers. A year ago, of course, they had only verballed.
The question, then, is what this means for the Gophers. It's no secret they've struggled since the 2006 exodus of top tier talent from the program. Nor is it any secret that the struggles have been exacerbated by coach Pam Borton's inability to keep the top Minnesotans at home. Tayler Hill is exhibit A.
But it's also no secret that Pam recruited Hill pretty hard and Hill just didn't want to be a Gopher. More hurtful has been Pam's decision to pass on some players who've gone on to have fine careers--mostly notably Kamille Wahlin, who ended up at Iowa, and Brittney Chambers, Kansas State. And, then, at the same time that Wahlin, in particular, was earning all-Big 10 honors at Iowa, Pam was forced to bring in junior college transfers Kay Silva and China Antoine but fill up a big roster hole at the guard spot.
Of course, you may ask, how many more games would the Gophers have won with Wahlin and Chambers, even, running at the guard spot in place of Silva and Antoine and who else? Brittney McCoy? Would Wahlin and Chambers have beaten out McCoy for playing time? Or is that just a pipe dream? We'll never know. Maybe you can't win with Minnesota kids--at least, not if one of them isn't named Tayler Hill.
Well, Wahlin will finish up her eligibility this year. Tayler's got 1 more year. Chambers, at least, is not in the Big 10. So let's get real. What about the Gophers that we've got. What about 2013.
There's reason for optimism, and reason why it should be cautious.
The class of 2008/2012 will be gone, and Kiara Buford in particular will be missed. And Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt as well. But let's admit that this class has been a huge disappointment. They were rated as a top 20 recruiting class, nationally, at the time, and they've never even sniffed the top 20 for real. Maybe if Wahlin had been a part of it...but, sorry, I was going to move on. It's hard, you know.
But a lot of talent remains, beginning of course with Rachel Banham, the "program changer" of the group. She's already an all-Big 10 caliber scorer. But, hey, she's the point guard, and her ball handling and distribution needs to get better. There, I said it. She turns it over too much, and he hasn't shown a knack for getting the ball to the open player in a spot where she can score.
Which brings us to Shayne Mullaney. Never all that highly regarded, one service had her #18 in her class as a sophomore and has moved her all the way up to #7, which means there are 6 girls who, in theory, are better than she is. Why didn't we recruit them?
Well, we did in the case of Jackie Johnson. But as to the other 5, let's be honest. gPrep booted it. Mullaney is the cream of the crop among 2012 guards. Like Banham, she is a scorer. But she is also stronger with the ball than Banham, and a better passer. If Pam is smart enough to make Shayne the #1 ball-handler, then Banham will be free to do what she does best, and that is look to score.
That leaves Leah Cotton on the bench, or rather "coming off the bench" for her senior year. She is just way too foul and turnover-prone to merit a starting slot, especially when a better option is available (Mullaney).
In the front-court, well, almost everybody is back + 2. Mastey and Voigt are moving on, but Kionna Kellogg has surpassed them both and returns for her junior year. Micaela Riche is back and may just force Pam to find a way to get her into the starting lineup. Except that Kayla Hirt will be back from a knee injury and big things are expected of her. She and Banham were rated as a top 20 recruiting class, by at least 1 service, for just the 2 of them.
On the other hand, Hirt has been out 2 full years with the knee. Can she still be an elite player? And if so, when will she be at full strength? Reports out of practice are encouraging but the proof remains to be seen.
And Katie Loberg and Amber Dvorak are back, Dvorak probably as a career back-up. Loberg continues to show tremendous promise and then to disappear. And she's going to be a senior so a lot of improvement is, frankly, not expected. She will probably continue to be inkonsistent Kate for another year.
Along with Mullaney, the other intriguing possibility is Riche starting at center, Loberg mvoing to the 4, and Kellogg the 3. But that only happens if Hirt isn't ready. And Jackie Johnson is in the mix in the frontcourt, probably at the 4 spot for now.
Center--Loberg 25 minutes Riche 10 Dvorak 5
Power Forward--Kellogg 30 Riche 5 Johnson 5
Small Forward--Hirt 25 Sari Noga 15
Point Guard--Mullaney 25 Cotton 15
Shooting Guard--Banham 35 Noga 5
Mikayla Bailey and Alex Ionescu (EDIT: and Shonte Clay) are projected as non-rotational.
But, again, there's some different ways to deploy the front court and I'm not at all confident this is the best way.
Meanwhile, in the backcourt, the options are fewer and depth is becoming an issue again by 2014, depending on the class of 2013 recruits.
Key Success Factors
1. Mullaney can indeed step in as a freshmen and help Banham protect the ball, and even upgrade ball movement, floor spacing and upgrade Banham's overall play.
2. Kayla Hirt is at full strength and hasn't lost any quickness.
3. Loberg continues to improve, at least incrementally.
4. The 2013 recruits are blue chippers at or near the 2011 (Banham-Hirt) level, say Coffey and Tyseanna Johnson.
5. Coach Borton proves her doubters to be wrong, and puts a team on the floor that plays with some passion and (secondly) gets it together on the Xs and Os as well. Actually, make this factor #1. If this group unlike, say, the class of 2008/2012, plays up to its potential, then 2013 and especially 2014 could see the Gophers return to contention for the 1st time since 2006. If not--if coach Borton is really the problem, if this group can't transcend the .500 mark--then this group (plus a new AD) will be the one that finally forces a change.