Utah State women's basketball readying for big challenges in 2013-14
Logan • Although women's basketball coach Jerry Finkbeiner now has a year under his belt at Utah State, the second year should be tougher than the first.
Although he's oriented, knows his players's strengths, and has a season of experience at the helm of the Aggies, the challenges are tougher. That includes a new conference, graduating more than 47 percent of his scoring from 2012-13, and incorporating a lot of youth into his system.
Bring it on, he said Monday, as the Aggies began practice.
"It'll be freshmen playing a lot of ball, and in some ways we'll have less experience than last year," he said. "The plus side is we're a bit deeper, and we understand the system better. And the challenge of the Mountain West should be exciting."
The Aggies lose their two top players from last year, sharpshooter Devyn Christensen and stat-stuffer Jenna Johnson, but return several who were key in a 21-win season and earning a second-place finish in the WAC conference. The team was on the cusp of an NCAA tournament berth - Finkbeiner said Johnson's broken pinky essentially was the divide to the Big Dance last year - and that will be the goal again this season, even in the tougher Mountain West.
Another goal? Score more. Finkbeiner expects the team to be more comfortable in his four-guard, fire-first offense.
"Run, gun and have fun - that's definitely our vision," he said. "We might be a year or two from fully realizing that, but the expectation is definitely to score more this year."
Even without Christensen and Johnson, the Aggies should shoulder the load in scoring. Jennifer Schlott, a senior point guard, averaged 14.3 points and led the team in assists last year. She'll run pick and rolls, as well as be an outside shooting threat. Finkbeiner said he expects Schlott to put up "Devyn numbers" this season.
Makenlee Williams, who made an impact as a freshman, should see more scoring opportunities as a dynamic, athletic guard who can cut or make long-range buckets.
Utah State also hopes to get a greater contribution from its front court this season. Franny Vaaulu will start at center, but 6-foot-4 junior college transfer Tijana Djukic and 6-foot-2 Stephanie Bairstow, both international players, should bolster the Aggies below the basket.
"Probably the key to this year will be Franny and Tijana in our post position," "If those two girls can average a double-double between them, because we didn't have that low-post support last year, that will give us a big pump offensively."
Utah State welcomes seven new players to the roster: three freshmen, two transfers who sat out last year, and two international transfers who will be available immediately. Four or five of them could get regular minutes this season, Finkbeiner said.
Finkbeiner said he's recruiting to cultivate more size and quickness to compete in the Mountain West, but he thinks his group will hold its own, especially if it can improve its defense.
"There's maybe a half-dozen games we didn't play defense well last year," he said. "We're going to have to improve that."
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon