The Georgia Tech women’s basketball team began its season Friday night with an agonizing result, a 95-89 double-overtime loss at Houston.
It likely did not dissuade coach MaChelle Joseph from the optimism she expressed about the season prior to Friday’s game. Joseph, in her 16th season coaching the Yellow Jackets, and seeking to return Tech to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
Five things to know about the season ahead.
Stocked freshman class
The two stars of the freshman class, guard Elizabeth Balogun and forward Elizabeth Dixon, have made a quick impression on Joseph. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans. They were part of a five-player class that was ranked as high as seventh nationally.
“The surprising things that I’ve seen from Elizabeth Dixon and Elizabeth Balogun has been their consistency,” Joseph said. “Usually when you have freshmen, they’re very inconsistent. The thing about those two that I’ve appreciated from day one is I’ve never had to coach effort. They come in every day. They’re gym rats. They work extremely hard, they’re very focused. Both of them have tremendous ability to score in different ways and they’re very skilled for being freshmen.”
High expectations for Pan
Forward Francesca Pan, who led the Jackets in scoring last season at 14.3 points per game as a sophomore, should have less scoring pressure and defensive attention with players such as Balogun and Dixon on the floor with her. Joseph was encouraged that in Tech’s first exhibition game, five different players scored in double figures.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that,” Joseph said.
Joseph figures that Pan, who last season shot 38 percent on two-points and 33 percent from 3-point range, can be a more efficient scorer and won’t even have to have plays run for her, as was the case last season.
“I don’t have to do that because there’s so much better spacing on the floor offensively and we play a lot faster than we’ve played in the past,” Joseph said.
Pan was one of 20 players named to the watch list for the Cheryl Miller Award, given to the top small forward in Division I.
Of 13 non-conference games, six are at home and the other seven are either neutral-site or on the road, including Friday’s season opener at Houston. There’s five games against teams rated in the top 100 of the RPI from last season (and also four teams rated 300 or lower).
“I think one of the things when we put the schedule together was, we knew we were going to have a young team but we knew we had to get ready for ACC play, and the only way to do that is to play teams that are going to challenge you and exploit you and show you your weaknesses so you know what to address to get better as the season progresses,” Joseph said.
Tech plays its annual game with Georgia at McCamish Pavilion on November 18. The Jackets open the home schedule Sunday against Appalachian State at 2 p.m.
Tech was picked to finish 10th in the ACC by its “blue ribbon” panel and ninth in the coaches poll. The Jackets finished in a tie for ninth last season at 6-10 and 19-14 overall. The Jackets won two games in the WNIT before falling in the third round to Alabama. Tech has missed on the NCAA for the past four seasons after Joseph had led the Jackets to seven berths in eight seasons.
Joseph likes her team, saying that her starting five and first three off the bench are “as good as anybody. It’s just a matter of putting it together night in and night out.”
Joseph said that her team needs to do better on the road, where they were 3-9 last season and 3-8 the year prior. A big challenge will be helping a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores to gain the edge necessary to win away from home.
“We’ve got to win on the road in this league to get into the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “That’s another reason why we’re playing so many neutral-floor games and away games (in the non-conference) is, i want these guys to be weathered before we get to ACC play and just have those experiences early on.”
Joseph, whose teams have long excelled at creating pressure (the Jackets were 23rd nationally in steals per game), sees a team that can uphold that standard.
“We really get up and down the floor,” Joseph said. “It reminds me of our Sweet 16 team (in 2012, Joseph’s best team) where we could really get out and get in passing lanes and we could press. For 40 minutes, we can really get after people and I’ve never coached a group of post players that can run the floor at 6-4, 6-5, t he way these ladies can run.”
Forwards Lorela Cubaj, who starred for Italy’s U-20 national team this summer, and Anne Diouf, who redshirted last season, are among those who Joseph expects to bring pressure.
“We’ve got some really interesting pieces,” Joseph said. “Again, I think it’s just going to be a process.”
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