You can see the anguish in Ferne Labati’s face. The hunger in her eyes. The joyous tone of her voice after her Miami Hurricanes’ women’s basketball squad knocks off a Big East power. Or, the somber tone of her voice after a ‘Lady Canes loss decreases their postseason chances. Any way you choose to look at it, Labati is as obsessed with winning as much as any coach in any sport across the nation.
As Miami tips off their 2002-2003 season tonight against South Florida tonight, Labati, with the help of her coaching staff, will be up and emotional in front of her bench, doing all it takes to start the most important winning streak: A 1-0 record. If you ask Labati about specific goals, she’ll tell you that they have ultimate goals, like making it to the NCAA Tournament, but right now they are worried about the next game. Labati is as much of a teacher as she is a head coach. She’s just as concerned as shaping up their personalities off the court and making sure they are learning just as much in class as they are on the court.
But, of course, Labati has plenty of time to think about wins and losses. And while the 250-153 record compiled in her 14 seasons at Miami is certainly something to be proud about, it’s also probably not at the forefront of her mind. Instead, the last four seasons ending without an NCAA Berth is something that Labati spends a lot more time thinking about of course, one can suggest that last year capped off a three-year rebuilding program and that a NIT berth and fifth-place finish in the Big East conference exceeded expectations. That’s not good enough for her, nor should it be. There’s no question she wants to win and has the ability to draw a winning game plan 25 times a year. Her overall record says that.
So, the question should be this: Do the players have what it takes to get to the Big Dance? Last year, they exceeded expectations but came one victory short of a likely NCAA Tournament berth. Severe offensive droughts resulted in silly losses at West Virginia or Providence. Win one of those and they are in. Hit a few more shots in a should-win contest at South Florida and they are in.
All three of those losses were a result of an inconsistent threat on offense. No one really wanted to step up on a consistent enough basis to score 15 points a game. Well, Meghan Saake wanted to, but a jump from six points a game to 11 was a big enough improvement for this year. Saake is one player that gives full effort in both practice and game situations, and her reward will be higher expectations. Saake should be the best all-around player on the team and unless unexpected injuries or other factors occur, Saake will be a 15 points per game scorer.
Who else will match her effort? In order for Miami to be a true Big East contender, they need more than one consistent player. Chanivia Broussard should be the best offensive player on the team, but a rash of injuries and several off-court problems have hindered that. Broussard still has more talent than anyone else on the squad, but whether she comes to play as a first or second team All Big-East member will be answered over the course of the season.
Like Saake, Shaquana Wilkins showed great strides of improvement last season, but that will not be enough this time around. Moving into the center position, Wilkins will already experience a size disadvantage for much of the season and needs to compensate that with hustle, grit, determination, and a consistent 10 points and eight rebounds on her stat sheet.
The point guard position, which has not seen a set starter over the past two seasons, is closer to one with the emergence of Yalonda McCormick. The sophomore likely will move into the starting position she was trying to win last season, but waiting for McCormick to develop slowly isn’t going to help matters. McCormick doesn’t have to be the offensive machine she was in high school, but needs to play mistake free basketball, and that means more distribution of the basketball and less turnovers trying to go one-on-one with an opponent.
Several veterans coming off the bench will contribute some skills, but needs to play smarter this year. Alicia Hartlaub, Melissa Knight, Hutashi Wilson, Vera Arsova and Fallon Phanord give Miami one of the most talented bench units in the Big East, but plays like Knight’s errant pass at the end of Tuesday’s exhibition game can overshadow the talent level.
Then, there are the freshmen. The fact that Tamara James likely will start dictates her importance on this squad. If she wants to remain a starter by the time Big East conference play rolls around, she will need to produce like a veteran. The same goes with Tatjana Marincic and Katie Hayek, if both want to get significant minutes off the bench.
The bottom line is top to bottom, this team has all the pieces in place to be one of the top three teams in the Big East and one that will get a berth into the NCAA Tournament. They have a great coach and a good senior leader. They also have a lot of unproven talent and play for a program that has experienced disappointment four seasons in a row. It is time to erase all that, it is time to stop rebuilding, and it is time to get that NCAA Berth. If for no other reason, than for your coach, who cares about you and the program as much as any other coach in the country.
You can reach Jeremy Marks-Peltz at email@example.com.