All signs are pointing up for the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville women’s basketball team.
The Cougars have been selected to win the Ohio Valley Conference championship and they have the preseason Player of the Year in 5-foot-7 senior guard Shronda Butts, who averaged 15.6 points and led the team with 97 assists last year.
“The one thing with the preseason ranking and everything else, I always look at that and think it’s a respect for the program and the players that came before, what they established,” fourth-year Cougars coach Paula Buscher said. “Then it’s just what people think you might do. We’ve got some really good pieces together; I really like our team.
“We’ve got good guard play, we’ve got good post play. And we have some depth in those positions, which makes it nice.”
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SIUE will open the season against visiting Northern Illinois at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Butts and players like 5-7 senior CoCo Moore, 5-8 sophomore Lauren White, 5-9 sophomore Donshel Beck and 5-11 sophomore Gwen Adams are eager to build on the Cougars’ 19-12 record of last season in which they were 13-3 in the OVC, three games behind Tennessee-Martin.
The Cougars’ lost 6-1 junior Micah Jones to a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury in their lone preseason game against Truman State on Nov. 6, but Buscher will have plenty of depth provided by 5-8 senior Erin Kelley, 5-8 freshman Amri Wilder, 5-8 sophomore Sidney Smith, 6-3 freshman Sydney Bauman and 6-5 senior Raven Warford.
“One of the best things about our team is its competitiveness,” Buscher said. “They bring it every day. We’ve got a long way to go, but they’re a group that allows me to challenge them every day. That makes it fun to coach. We’re ready to start, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be, and I think we’ll have some ups and downs. We’ll take little steps every day.”
Bullish on Butts
Buscher raves about Butts for her contributions on and off the court. Buscher originally recruited Butts, a Des Moines, Iowa, native, to Bradley. Butts played her sophomore year without Buscher, then transferred to SIUE.
“I’ve known her for so long, and one of the things I love about that kid ... is just her confidence and her competitiveness. She absolutely loves to play this game,” Buscher said. “When you watch her out there, you can tell she’s having fun and enjoys the game. She’s showing a lot of maturity this year. She’s letting the game come to her. Early in her career, she was going to go out and try to make everything happen as soon as she touched the ball.”
And with the game on the line, Butts will have the ball in her hands.
“She’s grown as a player and she’s learning how to get her entire team involved, but she’s also a go-to kid who’s not afraid to take those big shots,” Buscher said. “She likes to be in that big moment.”
Adams joins Butts as a double-digit scorer after averaging 11.1 points along with 6.4 rebounds last season. Adams can play on the perimeter, but with the injury to Jones, Buscher said Adams will primarily be positioned in the post.
“She brings it every day in practice,” Buscher said. “She’s a fun-loving kid who takes the game seriously. She’s a workhorse. She’ll do anything we ask her to do.”
White, an Edwardsville High graduate, was redshirted last season after playing her freshman season at Northern Kentucky.
“She’s got some great quickness,” Buscher said. “I love that speed, and I think that speed’s going to help us this year.”
Buscher anticipate improvement from returning players Smith, Moore, Kelley and Warford. Smith averaged 6.3 points last season and led the Cougars in 3-pointers with 54. Moore was sidelined by injury early in the season, but made 21 starts and averaged 5.4 points and collected 45 steals. Kelley averaged 2.4 points and made 12 3-pointer, while Warford averaged 1.5 points in limited duty.
“CoCo has stepped up her game,” Buscher said. “We’re excited to see what she’s doing right now. She’s playing well and really buying into the defensive tactics we’re working on. When you pair her and Lauren up, the quickness with the basketball is something that’s hard to stop.”
Buscher called Smith and Kelley “our sharpshooters.”
“They can come in and really fill it up from the 3-point area,” she said.
Bauman, a center, is a physical presence who Buscher expects to help in the rebounding department. Warford, also a center, is adept at blocking and altering shots. Wilder, a guard, is expected to improve with time and more aggressiveness. Buscher said Wilder already is advanced defensively.
Jones goes down
Jones is a noteworthy loss. She averaged 8.7 points and 5.6 rebounds last season, and ranked third on the team with 76 assists. Jones had 13 points and five rebounds in just 15 minutes in the exhibition game against Truman State.
“Micah has been that kid that’s pretty much (always) started for us,” Buscher said. “I pulled her off the bench (against Truman State) and told her, ‘Micah, I need you to look to score more. I don’t think you’re looking to score enough.’ She comes in and gets 13 points in 15 minutes and does exactly what I wanted her to do as a coach.”
But Buscher understands injuries are part of the game and the Cougars will look forward to Jones’ return in 2016.
“Things happen,” Buscher said. “Micah will be fine. I’m sure she will rehab back and be better than ever. We have other players and somebody will have to step up. It’s unfortunate for Micah and it’s unfortunate for our team, but things happen for a reason. We’ll have her for two more years. It’s a matter of other people getting their feet wet and getting comfortable in the rotation.”