Here’s an updated look at eight teams heading to the 2015 women’s Cancun Challenge
GEORGIA TECH: The Yellow Jackets reached the postseason WNIT last year and finished 19-15, but the preseason ACC poll tabbed the team to finish 11th out of 15 teams in the year to come. The roster will hope to surprise the doubters, bringing back four starters and the steady hand of head coach MaChelle Joseph, who is the all-time winningest coach for the program.
A couple of 6-footers will likely lead the way, forward Roddreka Rogers and Aaliyah Whiteside. Rogers should comfortably average double figures in scoring and rebounding, while Whiteside is a bit more inside/outside in terms of her game.
"We are really excited about this season," Joseph said during the school’s media day. "For the first time in three years I feel like our core values are intact and our culture is very strong. I have to give credit to these two young ladies sitting beside me (Whiteside and Rogers). Last year we virtually played the season with no seniors because Sydney Wallace got injured before the ACC season. Aaliyah and Roddreka are actually seniors two years in a row. We always say, you are always as good as your seniors. If that's the case, then I think we can be very competitive and surprise a lot of people night in and night out in the ACC."
HIGH POINT: The Panthers know offense is a given with junior Kaylah Keys, who already has 1,000 career points and was named to the all-Big South preseason first team. With the ball in her hands so often, turnovers have been an issue, so she’ll look to balance the scales a bit and help the offense work more efficiently.
As many as seven newcomers will bolster the roster for High Point, which was picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll for the Big South. The roster also includes three sophomores.
IDAHO: The Vandals are in their second year in the Big Sky Conference; not every team qualifies for the postseason tournament, so the first order of business is making that cut and growing the team’s relevance in the mix.
Ali Forde, who split time with the volleyball program in her first three years at Idaho, decided to commit full-time to basketball. She started 27 games for the Vandals as a junior and is a reliable source for points, rebounds and blocked shots.
Idaho scored a luxurious 93 points in its exhibition game and shot nearly 42 percent from 3-point range. That will be a big number looking ahead, as the Vandals were just 32 percent from long range last season.
IOWA STATE: The Cyclones were picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll for the Big 12, a definite sign of respect in a difficult league. Interestingly, the lineup is expected to thrive with the addition of three freshmen (Bridget Carleton, Meredith Burkhall and TeeTee Starks).
“All three of [the freshmen] are in the rotation and all three of them will play,” said ISU head coach Bill Fennelly. “As the year goes on, that’s not going to change. Those three are in our top six or top seven. That’s been a pretty consistent thing at practice.”
Starks is recovering from concussion symptoms after a collision in practice, but is expected to be a factor at point guard. The team also gets a lift from a redshirt freshman -- Claire Ricketts played three games before suffering a wrist injury and missing the rest of the season.
NC STATE: The Wolfpack know going in that the ACC is a demanding conference, with Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville and Duke expected to make noise on a national stage as well as regionally. NC State was picked ninth in the preseason polling and need the six-member freshman class to contribute.
Miah Spencer, a 5-8 junior guard, will be leaned on again after averaging 14.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Dominique Wilson, another 5-8 junior guard, hit four 3-pointers in the team’s exhibition win against Wingate and may end up the team’s leading scorer.
NORTHERN IOWA: The Panthers were picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference and are riding high on the optimism of new, and relatively new, faces on the roster.
Six players will suit up for the first time, while the team gets a serious boost from the return of two players out last season with injuries. Jen Keitel, a 6-3 senior center, played seven games before getting sidelined; she averaged about 13 points and six rebounds per game as a sophomore, starting 25 games. Hannah Schonhardt missed all of last season and is now a redshirt junior – the 6-2 forward started 29 games as a sophomore and shot a sizzling 44 percent from 3-point range.
“We want to push the basketball a little more than we’ve done in the past,” said head coach Tanya Warren. “We want to get up and try to pressure people defensively. Our thing is to not play tired. There’s no reason for us to play fatigued or be saving anything, because we have kids who can come in and give us a lift.”
TEXAS STATE: The Bobcats are still reassembling some game plans after losing senior Erin Peoples to an ACL injury; she will miss the season and force the team to replace her 14 points and seven rebounds per game.
Ayriel Anderson, who was named to the all-Sun Belt Conference preseason second team, is the logical focal point going forward. The 5-3 guard is the team’s best passer and also is an accurate 3-point shooter. The lineup also gets a boost from redshirt sophomore Kaitlin Walla, who missed last year with her own ACL injury, and everyone is hoping a grittier attitude toward defense will make a difference.
“I think the challenge is that they always have an understanding, if I make the shot, everything in the world is okay,” said head coach Zenarae Antoine. “I think the challenge you find is understanding that defense takes a lot more leg work than it does necessarily brain work -- it takes a lot of leg work and that’s your ability to be able to move quickly and to understand gaps and seams.”
UAB: The Blazers were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Conference USA preseason poll; the team has three returning starters and seems to be on the rise in coach Randy Norton’s third season.
Freshman guard Deanna Kuzmanic scored 20 points in the team’s final exhibition game; senior guard Chelsee Black also looks ready to go, with the team needing her careful touch to help with assists. Like a lot of teams, the thought of playing in the Cancun Challenge is a thrill for the program.
“We've talked about the leadership you have to have that chemistry and when you go on a trip like Cancun, you're not with anyone else but the staff and the players,” Norton said. “They have to have that time to bond, and we'll do a lot of activities as a team just to work on team building and get that close-knit group. We are excited about who we are playing. High Point was a 20-game winner last year, and then we've got NC State, so we will have two tough games over there. We will also have the opportunity to have our players enjoy themselves, so we are excited about it."