On Friday, the Michigan State women’s basketball team hosted their media day at the Breslin Center.
The Spartans are coming off of a 23-10 season in which they captured the Big Ten Championship for the second time in four years. It is clear to see this year’s team is hungry for another ring this year.
Coach Suzy Merchant opened the media day with high hopes in her team, considering that they are returning 60 percent of their scoring offense. The first question Merchant received was about her transformation into Beyonce last weekend at Midnight Madness. Merchant was asked if she was trying to be Beyonce or Barbarella.
“Someone texted me and said ‘Beyonce’ and I agreed with that, but when I saw Barbarella in eight inch platform shoes I felt like I had to throw it out there, too,” Merchant said. “I am glad that one minute 23 seconds of my life is completely over and in the past. Although not on YouTube, I suppose, right? Unfortunately.”
After that, the questions were strictly business. The first topic touched on was sophomore guard Branndais Agee who is out with an ACL injury. Merchant said she is expected to be back in January, but she has had “a couple setbacks” so they will get more clarity as time goes on.
To pick up the load that is left by the status of Agee’s injury, Merchant has high expectations for freshmen Jasmine Lumpkin and Lexi Gussert.
“When you think the game you usually can be slower in reacting, so for them it’s just about getting lots of reps and fortunately for us, they’re high IQ kids and have gotten a lot of reps in practice, so they’re getting better and better every single day, but those two kids will step up and maybe together combine,” Merchant said. “Because Brandi, honestly, was one of our better players down the stretch last season and was having an amazing season and was taking off, so it’s disappointing she’ll not be with us from the beginning of the year on and we will have to wait and see in January.”
Merchant also acknowledged that her focus this season has not only been for the players to get better but also for her and the coaching staff to get better over the summer also. She said that assistant coach Mark Simons and herself took the time to study different offenses and found one in particular that they like.
“Certainly for us, that is the one area that I felt like we needed improvement on. For us, we’ve always been a very good set team, focused on creating mismatch opportunities, bigs that can shoot, guards that can post it, that kind of thing,” Merchant said. “So we’ve always been able to do that and I’ve always believed in that, but for me to define a fault offense we can go to once a set breaks down was something that I thought our program needed and we spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to prepare for that.”
Sophomores Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska have high expectations placed on them after their shared outstanding freshmen seasons, leading the team in scoring and to the Big Ten Championship. Powers was named to the preseason coaches All-Big Ten team this season. Coach Merchant and the girls acknowledge that teams now know what to look for when studying their game and they have been working on improving their weaknesses.
“I think as a freshman you don’t know what you don’t know and that was good for them. I think sometimes once people have keyed on your strengths, you have to be able to counter that. For Aerial, she is good off the bounce, she is great in transition. Toward the end of the Big Ten you saw people try to take some of those things away,” Merchant said. “With Tori they played her as a shooter only and forced her to put the ball on the deck a little bit which is good and those were the things in the offseason I think they have learned and been able to carry over as sophomores trying to lead a team and a program.”
One of the things that Merchant values most about this team are her seniors. Merchant assured that fans would be seeing a lot of playing time from forwards Becca Mills and Jasmine Hines. Off the court, she mentioned that Madison Williams is still playing a big role for the team in many ways.
“As your seniors go, so go your team. We’re excited about Jasmine Hines and certainly excited about Becca Mills as well, and I would put Madison Williams in there, too. Maybe she can’t contribute with points and rebounds at times but has been extremely significant for us,” she said.
The Spartans are ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten and 14th in the national rankings. Maryland, a new addition to the Big Ten, is ranked first in the conference. Merchant expressed a high regard of excitement and respect for Maryland and Rutgers being added to conference play now.
“’I’m not sure that there will be a difference in preparation necessarily because I think all the coaches in our league, we prepare for every team, every opponent. But the one thing that Maryland does bring is a tremendous amount of national recognition and success in the women’s game in general and now you’re putting them in the Big Ten.
MSU opens their season November 9 at 4 p.m. with an exhibition against Grand Valley State University. This is a season of high standards for the players and the coaching staff. It will be an interesting journey to follow over the year.
Jalen Walker is the co-host of Merchantaries for Impact Sports.
Photo: Nubia Buckingham/Impact Sports