“Big Ten Champs.”
For a women’s basketball team that finished with a 5-23 overall record and a 1-15 conference mark last year, the words a little ridiculous.
But for coach Cheryl Burnett’s young team – made up of one junior, five sophomores, and five freshmen – nothing seems impossible.
“I don’t look at last year,” freshman point guard Jessica Minnfield said at the team’s Media Day on Thursday. “I just expect to be somewhere as a team this year and work together and just win. Win. That’s pretty much it.”
Minnfield – Ohio’s 2005 Miss Basketball – looks to step in and take over as the team’s starting point guard. But she is just a part of a recruiting class that has Burnett and her staff very excited.
“This is one of the most incredible recruiting classes that I know I and our staff has ever gotten anywhere,” Burnett said. “It’s an amazing class from top to bottom. We got bigger, we got more physical, (and) we got quicker.”
Other than Minnfield, the class includes 6-foot-3 forward and Miss Canada Basketball award winner Stephany Skrba, McDonald’s All-American finalist Melinda Queen and Michigan Miss Basketball finalists Carly Benson and Ashley Jones.
But these freshmen do not arrive with just high accolades. They’re also ready to work. Both Jones and Minnfield were able to pass all but one of Burnett’s individual conditioning tests. And it’s not just those two.
“I’ve coached for a long time,” Burnett said, “and I’ve tested every single team I’ve coached. This team has tested better, by far, as an entire group, than any team I’ve ever coached.”
Conditioning is especially important for a Burnett-coached team, as she employs a style of play that emphasizes a full-court game, both on defense and in a transition offense.
One of her trademarks is a “scramble” defense, in which the defense tries to pressure the offense with double-teams, trapping and attacking all over the floor. It’s a style of play that the players love, but one that requires a certain amount of speed and athleticism. That is one area where Skrba should help.
Highly recruited out of Langstaff Secondary School in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Skrba is a two-time Canadian Junior National Team member. She should bring scoring, rebounding and versatility to a team that needs all three.
“We have a post player at 6-foot-3 who is getting numbers that it’s hard for guards to get,” Burnett said.
But even with Skrba’s athleticism, she has not automatically earned a starting spot on a team that values conditioning and defense above all. Burnett has already let her players know that the five who are the best-conditioned and play the toughest defense will start the first exhibition game.
“I’m a firm believer that, yes, you have to have skills of course,” Burnett said, “but what really determines the excellence and the championships goes far beyond that skill level. It goes to coachability, it goes to mental toughness, it goes to the last 10 minutes of the game. Are we in better shape than our opponent?”
Burnett has the same expectations for this team that she has for all her teams: to make the NCAA Tournament, however many wins that takes.
“I will be very disappointed if that does not happen this year,” Burnett said.
Making the NCAA Tournament is one thing. But winning the Big Ten, a conference that includes 2004 Final Four runner-up Michigan State and preseason top-15 teams Ohio State and Minnesota, is another.
Yet Junior Kelly Helvey believes it can happen.
“If we just come in and do whatever is necessary, we have absolutely nothing to lose,” Helvey said. “We’re going to do a lot better than we did last year. I’ve been very impressed with the way (the freshmen) have all been able to play. I didn’t know what to expect from them, but I’ve been stunned by their abilities.”
Not many teams win conferences when 10 out of its 11 players on the team are underclassmen.
But this team doesn’t appear to know any better.
And that just might be a good thing.