Saturday, October 16th marks the first official day of 2004-05 collegiate basketball practice. The Texas women's basketball team enters the new season as one of the nation's highest-regarded clubs. In each preseason publication to date, the Longhorns are ranked in the national top five. Head coach Jody Conradt's Longhorns return 11 letterwinners, including four starters, with three of the starters (seniors Jamie Carey and Heather Schreiber, along with sophomore Tiffany Jackson) claiming preseason All-America honors while also in the preseason running for National Player of the Year honors. Texas has made three straight trips to the NCAA Sweet 16, and is the two-time defending Big 12 regular season champion, wining the crown outright two years ago while sharing the title last year en route to its 30-5 finish. Coach Conradt offers a brief look at what's ahead for her squad and the importance of dealing with the expectations that face the team.
Coach, if you could speak about the high expectations which face your team as the 2004-05 season gets ready to start ...
JC: "First, we are very anxious to get going with official team practice this Saturday! The expectations are high, especially since we are a team which lost only one player - even though that player, Stacy Stephens, was a four-year starter and an All-Conference and All-America player and someone who was a big, big part of our success. We return as many players as anyone in the country, and with the expectations comes the pressure that I didn't think we handled very well last year, particularly in the (NCAA) playoffs. There's a totally different mindset when you have expectations as high as we anticipate them being this year. It'll be interesting to see how we all handle the pressure and the expectations. We don't look much at preseason rankings and such – they are fun for the fans and for the media, but we do have our own high expectations for ourselves this year."
You mentioned that the team did not particularly handle those high expectations as well as it could have last year; is there a change in how team is approaching this year and the expectations that Texas will be a national contender?
JC: "We always want our players thinking, 'I'm playing basketball at Texas, and there are certain expectations which go along with that.' In terms of talking directly about this season and how to deal with expectations, we are not there yet. We are not doing any team things yet, since this is the last week of individual workouts. Once we get together this weekend as a team in official practice, we'll address all this.
That said, we've enjoyed some good success the last three years. And this success has come from hard work. Our players understand how important every day of preparation is, year-round. That's the work they do in the spring, in the summer, during conditioning drills and individual workouts in September and October. Our players have a great sense of purpose heading into the season."
This past Labor Day weekend, you took the team to Vancouver to play a four-game exhibition series. What have been the lasting effects of making that Labor Day trip?
JC: "There were some real positive things which came out as a result of our trip to Vancouver. It gave us a chance to see where we were, as our returning players and our three new players all got a chance to play. It was fun and exciting to travel to a new part of the country and play against Canadian collegiate competition. Importantly, it gave us a chance to do some team-bonding, on and off the court, early in the year. That said, I am not sure that the trip helped us as we got back into individual workouts. There certainly is a difference in being together and playing together as a team, as opposed to coming into the gym the last five weeks or so and doing individual drills and working on fundamentals in small groups of two's and three's. I know everyone is working hard as we go through conditioning and individual workouts, but I know that in the back of everyone's mind is the thought, "OK, let's just get through these individual workouts and get through this part quickly - and get back on the court together as a team!'. They are all very anxious to get going officially and leave these individualized workouts behind."
The first anniversary of the opening of Cooley Pavilion is coming up in early November. What has it been like to have full access to a wonderful practice facility like Cooley Pavilion?
JC: "There's no question that having the Cooley Pavilion has relieved all of our stress. Now, there is consistency in terms of us having a real basketball home and in terms of us having a practice facility available 24/7. It's helped all of us immensely since last November. It's a beautiful building which serves all of our needs, and we are thrilled to call it our basketball home."
You start the year with one of your largest seniors classes in memory – six players (Jody Bell, Kala Bowers, Jamie Carey, Annissa Hastings, Heather Schreiber and Mercedes Williams). What impact do you expect these six players to have on this year's team, and how do you expect them to handle leadership issues?
JC: "We've talked as a group to our six seniors about a lot of topics, including leadership roles. Leadership is always an issue with every team, and certainly it is an issue with this one. We have a very strong senior class in terms of what they've all contributed on the court; they are still learning how to be leaders. The issue of leadership is going to be one of the big questions which needs to be answered as we move forward."
Texas is the only school in the country with three preseason Wooden All-Americans and three preseason candidates for National Player of the Year honors (Wooden Award and State Farm Wade Trophy). What are your feelings on this?
JC: "Again, once you have preseason team honors and expectations, individual honors follow like they have for Jamie, Heather and Tiffany. That again is part of the expectations we face this year. I'm pleased our players are getting recognized, but I know we all are in agreement that individual recognition isn't what's important. What's important will be to see how we can put it all together as a team."
What has the addition of freshman guard Erneisha Bailey and junior transfer and forward Daria Mieloszynska meant to the program?
JC: "I thought we didn't have enough depth last year, especially on the perimeter, and that hurt us. We got into a bind at the beginning of year with the loss of Annissa (Hastings) to her Achilles injury, and then down the stretch of the Big 12 regular season Kala (Bowers) had some health issues which extended into the postseason. Erneisha and Daria are both talented players, and they will make our practices more competitive and will push for playing time."
Do you have any final thoughts on what it will take for Texas to defend its Big 12 championship and make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament?
JC: "Like I said earlier, we need to address our leadership issues. We need to stay healthy of course, and we'll need to toughen up defensively on a regular basis and improve our offensive consistency. We are going to work hard in these areas, and if we succeed in addressing them, then we'll be in a position to challenge for championships. It all starts on Saturday, and I cannot wait to get started!"