The talk around the Washington’s women’s basketball team is all about returning to the NCAA tournament. Motivation increased a notch on Wednesday.
The NCAA announced Washington is one of 16 host sites for the opening two rounds of the 2014 tournament. In an effort to increase attendance, the selection committee would seed the Huskies to play on its home court — should it advance.
The site could also host Pac-12 rival Washington State, Gonzaga (West Coast Conference), Seattle University (Western Athletic Conference) or Eastern Washington (Big Sky), of course. But returning four starters and blending two McDonald’s All-Americans into the lineup, UW plans to earn a tournament berth and play its opener at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“The NCAA tournament is something that they (the players) have talked about since the end of last year,” said first-year Washington coach Mike Neighbors. The Huskies’ 21-12 season last year ended with a second-round loss in the NIT.
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“I’ll be interested to see how aggressive they are with that goal, knowing you have a chance to get two home games,” Neighbors added.
Washington last hosted the NCAA tournament in 2010, Gonzaga playing at the site. The Huskies, however, haven’t earned a berth since it lost in the opening round in 2007 — current WSU coach June Daugherty’s last season at UW.
The Huskies appear to be strong contenders this season. This is Neighbors’ first as a head basketball coach at the collegiate level, but he helped recruit the roster the past two seasons under former coach Kevin McGuff. Neighbors also was responsible for the team’s defense.
McGuff left in April to coach Ohio State. Neighbors said he communicates weekly with McGuff, whose advice upon leaving was succinct.
“Put your own stamp on this thing,” Neighbors recalled McGuff saying.
At media day on Thursday, Neighbors introduced one of the program’s most talented roster in history. Katie Collier, a 2012 McDonald’s All-American, will play her first season after rehabilitating last year from tearing her anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in her right knee.
Joining Collier, a 6-foot-5 post, is freshman point guard Kelsey Plum, who’s a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and McDonald’s All-American. Then there’s the returning starters: point guard Jazmine Davis, redshirt sophomore Talia Walton, junior Aminah Williams and Mercedes Wetmore — the only scholarship senior on the roster.
Davis, a two-time all-Pac-12 first-team member, is still expected to run an up-tempo offense. But Neighbors doubts she’ll average the 19.3 points that she did last season, which was second in the conference.
“There are different sets of skills here,” said Davis. Last season Walton, a 6-foot-2 forward, had to play center, and UW led the Pac-12 in making 262 three-pointers.
The Huskies will open the season without freshman guard Brianna Ruiz. Ruiz, who had knee injuries in high school, suffered an ACL tear in her right knee and will likely receive a medical redshirt.
They’ll also be without Deborah Meeks, who transferred to Trinity Valley Junior College in pursuit of more playing time while Macy Keen, a center from Miami, didn’t academically qualify to transfer and will play at a junior college this season.
Regardless, Neighbors knows the team has more depth than last season. And despite missing Kristi Kingma’s leadership, there isn’t much change this season outside of the coaching staff, with Neighbors hiring Fred Castro from Tulsa to fill the vacant assistant coach role.
“I still forget to pack dress clothes because there’s events that I have to go to at night,” Neighbors said of his new role. “The basketball part of it, (I’m) really lucky that I’ve had people prepare me. None of the basketball part has tripped me up, yet.”
Former Colorado guard Alexus Atchley will join the Huskies as a walk-on. She was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.