It’s not often that a team goes into a season with high expectations after losing four of its five starters from the previous year, especially when one of those players is among the greatest the league has ever seen. That is exactly what the women’s basketball team is doing, however, as head coach Courtney Banghart has put together a team that has been picked to finish first in the Ivy League for the fifth-straight year.
The biggest storyline this season will be how the Tigers handle losing so much talent. The loss of four starters makes senior forward Kristen Helmstetter the only player on this year’s team who started a double-digit number of games last season.
The Tigers' biggest loss was the graduation of forward Niveen Rasheed ’13, the two-time unanimous Ivy League Player of the Year and who led Princeton with 16.7 points per game last season, almost eight more then the second leading scorer on the team. Last year’s senior class was 54-2 in Ivy League play, tying it with Penn’s men’s basketball Class of 1996 as the winningest class in Ivy basketball history.
“Obviously, we’re a little inexperienced after the graduations, but what I love about this team is that they are not using inexperience as an excuse,” Banghart said. “They’re hungry, talented, and I’m really enjoying this team.”
Additionally, the team will have senior guard Nicole Hung back after she suffered a season-ending knee injury early last season —she started the first five games for the Tigers before the injury kept her out from further action. Hung and Helmstetter are the lone seniors and also the two co-captains.
“It’s definitely a different role; both of us have to adjust a little bit, but it’s exciting,” Helmstetter said. “The younger ones definitely look up to us, and it’s an honor to be able to help them and try to teach them."
The team also added three new freshmen this season: guards Taylor Brown and Vanessa Smith and forward/center Jackie Reyneke.
“They look good. They’re really athletic; they work hard, and I think they’ll all get a chance to contribute,” Helmstetter said of the freshmen. “They are freshmen, though, and when they come in there’s a lot of new things to learn with the different pace to the game, but I definitely look forward to seeing them play.”
“The freshmen are really talented. They come from good programs in terms of winning backgrounds,” Banghart added. “We got who we wanted in this class, and we’re excited about that. They’re freshmen, so the sooner they can adjust to the college pace of play, the better.”
Junior guard Blake Dietrick is expected to be another important piece for the Tigers. Dietrick is the only non-senior in this year’s squad to start a game last season but played the third-most minutes of any Tiger, just behind Helmstetter. She led the team in three-pointers, scoring 52 baskets from beyond the arc, 15 more than any of her teammates.
Sophomore forward Alex Wheatley and junior guard Mariah Smith are expected to make bigger contributions this season, as both played around 15 minutes per game last year despite never starting. Wheatley actually led the team in field goal percentage, making 55.4 percent of her attempts. No other Tiger shot better than 50 percent from the floor. Smith was great from beyond the arc, albeit only on 13 attempts, as she was tied for first on the team in three-point shooting with 38.5 percent.
The team is deep despite losing so many starters. When asked about the starting lineup, Banghart stated that she truly did not know who all five starters would be, as the team is continually making large strides, and that the team that will play on Sunday, the team’s opening day, is different from the team that they have today.
The team is expected to be fairly different from last year’s squad, which is not surprising due to all the graduated talent. Last year’s offense was powerful, scoring 71.2 points per game —good for first in the Ivy League. Princeton was also first in assists and second in field goal percentage. However, despite being at the top of the Ivy League, the offense was not on par with some of the better teams they faced.
“This team has shown so far that they really can score. We’ve struggled there in the past few years. We had some players that were tough and physical and could really defend, but we couldn’t score with much ease. This team can score with ease, and that’s been a fun thing to see,” Banghart said. “Offense comes down to talent and playing together, and this group can really do that well.”
“Our strength, I would say, is versatility,” Helmstetter added. “We have a lot of different options, and we have shooters this year, which is really exciting.”
Defense was last year’s squad’s true strength, however, as Princeton had the best scoring defense in the league, only allowing 53 points per game. Additionally, the Tigers dominated the glass, getting over 40 rebounds per game, and led the league in steals.
“Defensively, we have to get a little bit more prepared for the place, and we have to do a better job rebounding, which has been our staple for the past two years," Banghart said. Those things come down to toughness and urgency and awareness, and we’re helping them with that.”
Princeton is looking to win the Ivy League and advance to the NCAA tournament for the fifth-straight year. The Tigers' appearance in the tournament in 2010 was their first ever, but now they are starting to make a habit of it. Despite facing arguably its most difficult path to the tournament ever, with the improvements of both Harvard and Penn as well as the talent that left last season, Princeton remains confident that this year will be no different than the past four.
“If we keep [improving every day], this team could be really special in January, February and March,” Banghart said.
“I expect nothing but the best. [Hung and I] just hold our teammates to the highest standards," Helmstetter said. "We’ll focus on each game as its own individual game and hopefully come out with a win, another Ivy title and another chance to get a win in the tournament.”