By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — To get her players’ attention this fall, women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan need only mention one date: Nov. 22.
That’s when Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Lady Vols visit John Paul Jones Arena – their first game at UVa since 1996.
“It helps everybody” associated with the Cavaliers’ program, Ryan said of Tennessee’s visit. “I think regardless of what you do in the game, it’s going to teach you something, one way or the other.”
A season ago, UVa stunned the Lady Vols 83-82 before 11,627 fans in Knoxville. Four nights later, however, Virginia lost 78-70 at Old Dominion.
“Last year, after we won [at Tennessee], I think our biggest problem was coming down off of it,” Ryan said this afternoon in her JPJ office. “That was the toughest part … having a team that did something like that and then teaching them. You have to be able to turn around and go play Old Dominion and hold your ground.”
Virginia’s 2009-10 schedule, released today, also includes a trip to Freeport, Bahamas, as well as games against such non-conference opponents as Purdue, Georgia and Colorado.
“It’s a good schedule,” Ryan said. “It’s a tough one.”
Ryan’s 33rd team at UVa, where her record is 699-298, will be one of the youngest she’s coached. The roster includes nine first- or second-year players. Five are freshmen: 6-3 Simone Egwu, 6-4 Errin Thompson, 5-11 Lexie Gerson, 6-1 Telia McCall and 5-6 China Crosby.
“We’re going to need several kids in that class to contribute,” Ryan said. “Just about everybody’s going to get some playing time, the way I look at it.
“They’re a very talented group. Very young, but they come in, in my opinion, on a little different level than a lot of our other players. They have come in fairly prepared. Now, they’re going to have to learn a lot, but they’re pretty prepared for what’s going to happen. They did very well this summer with our strength coach, which is a real good sign as to how they will handle things.”
From a team that went 24-10 and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round, Virginia lost four players who started at least 20 games apiece: Aisha Mohammed, Lyndra Littles, Britnee Millner and Kelly Hartig.
But Hartig, who has given up basketball and transferred to another school, played fewer than 20 minutes a game and averaged only 1.4 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Hartig’s departure “probably affects our depth to a certain degree, in the post,” Ryan said. “But honestly, our kids will be real young, but they’ll be talented, and Chelsea Shine played so well last year, gained so much experience, that she was knocking on the door anyway.”
A 6-2 post player, Shine averaged 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds as a freshman last season. Others back who played significant minutes are 5-11 sophomore Whitny Edwards, 5-7 sophomore Ariana Moorer and, of course, 5-11 senior Monica Wright.
Wright, who has started all 102 games she’s played for the ‘Hoos, is an All-America candidate who averaged 20.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.8 steals last season.
She also led the team in turnovers, with 129, but don’t be surprised if her decision-making improves in 2009-10.
“She’s really worked all summer to get better as a player,” Ryan said.
“One thing she’s worked on is her ability to have a little bit of a speed change in her game. Because Monica is just so fast, she can just beat everybody down the court. But now she’s worked on having a little bit of a tempo to her game, as opposed to just flying down the court and shooting that shot. There’s a little tempo to her game, a little rhythm.
“That’s probably been the biggest thing, to get her to play with several different speeds. Because this team is going to be able to run, no question, but we are going to have to pick our spots a little more.”
UVa played all last season without guard Paulisha Kellum, who’d started 31 games and averaged 9 points in 2007-08. Kellum tore her ACL in a scrimmage last October and needed reconstructive surgery.
Kellum is back with the team, which began its fall workouts this week, but she’s not yet full speed.
“She’s done well, but that’s a full-year injury,” Ryan said. “We’re now to the point where she’s out there with us. She can’t do everything, but she’s out there doing things, and we’ll just have to see.”
Wright is the only player on the team in her final year of eligibility. But Kellum and Jayna Hartig, who are listed as redshirt juniors, entered UVa with Wright in 2006. Ryan is delighted with the leadership her veterans are providing.
“I think our five freshmen feel like they’ve got six or seven mothers besides me,” she said with a smile.