VCU women’s basketball head coach Beth Cunningham’s roster this season is split, half returning, half new. Her proverbial glass – her outlook on the season – is not all too dissimilar, either: half-full.
In what will be her eighth season in charge of the Rams since taking over in 2002, Cunningham – the university’s most winning coach all-time with 129 wins – is looking to continue what is now three straight years of 20 wins or more, a school record.
It won’t be easy though, because the squad lost its two top scorers, and performers, in forward D’Andra Moss and guard Kita Waller – who averaged 17.7 and 15.8 points per game last year respectively – through graduation. And the task was made undoubtedly harder when senior guard Ebony Patterson tore her left Achilles tendon during an offseason workout a month ago.
“Both Kita and D’Andra made a tremendous impact on our program over the course of last four years, and to have the type of seasons they did, I don’t think you can replace them,” Cunningham said. “But I think there are new opportunities for kids to step up into new roles that they haven’t had the opportunity to do before.”
Junior Courtney Hurt is one of those. Hurt – a 6-foot 1-inch forward out of Georgia, a state which now comprises one third of VCU’s roster – was the fourth leading scorer on the team last season behind Moss and Waller with 13.7 points per game. This season, her leadership role could be critical.
“The biggest adjustment (Hurt is going to have) is: freshman and sophomore year she was playing with really talented kids and wasn’t really the focal point of another team’s scouting report, but this year she will,” Cunningham said. “She’s going to be very important.”
Very important to a team that’s grown accustomed to the pleasantness of making the post-season three straight years heading into this one. The Rams made the National Invitational Tournament in 2007, earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and returned to the NIT last year where they made it to the quarterfinals before falling to Syracuse in the third round.
So even with a roster full of freshman, Cunningham’s hard-earned standards aren’t going anywhere.
“I don’t think our goals and expectations change at all,” Cunningham said. “Certainly every team has a new identity and each has to figure out what it’s going to take, but our goal always has been to win a championship and go to the post-season, and that doesn’t change.”
Indeed the only changing that will likely occur around the women’s basketball program is the adjustments the incoming freshman have – and are continuing – to make when transferring from high school to a highly-regarded program.
Four freshman comprise this season’s rookie class.
“We have a great group of kids who have responded to (what we’ve asked of them); they want … continue the success we’ve had, but every year it’s a new team and a new identity, and this team isn’t any different,” Cunningham said. “It’s going to take some time to figure out our direction to be successful.”