ONLINE EXCLUSIVE BY AUSTIN CANNON
Drake Women’s Basketball won both of their exhibition games, and the season begins Sunday when the Bulldogs host the Iowa State Cyclones at the Knapp Center. Drake was projected to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference, so here are three things to watch for as the season gets underway.
1. Lizzy Wendell’s workload
Wendell is Drake’s best player — and arguably the best in the conference — so keeping her fresh and healthy will be essential if the Bulldogs want to make a run for to the NCAA tournament. Last season, she averaged 32.7 minutes per game. And you can’t blame coach Jennie Baranczyk for keeping her on the floor – Wendell averaged 21.8 points per contest, tops in the conference.
Will that continue this season? That depends on if Wendell’s teammates can produce enough so she can get some rest. Maddy Dean and Caitlin Ingle both complimented Wendell last season and Sara Rhine has shown she can score in the two exhibition games, so there are options outside of Wendell playing more than 30 minutes every time out.
Baranczyk said after Drake’s second exhibition game that she hopes the team can win without Wendell having to score 30 per game. That alone shows how important she is. On offense, she can play in the post and attack from beyond the arc. She’s a disruptor on defense as well, leading the team in both blocks and steals against Simpson. Drake is simply better with her on the court.
Drake’s Missouri Valley Conference foes will likely have better plans to defend against Wendell in her junior year. The test will be whether Drake’s offense can remain effective while Wendell is on the bench.
2. Life without Becca Jonas
Jonas, who started all 31 games at center last season and averaged 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds, is lost for the season after surgery on her left knee. Baranczyk said in her media day presser that it’s impossible to replace a player of her caliber, but the Bulldogs will have to try.
Emma Donahue started both exhibition games. The 6-foot-2 senior scored eight and two points, respectively, pulling down six rebounds in all. Granted, this is a miniscule sample size, but replacing Jonas will likely need to be a team effort.
Dean and Wendell can both play inside with Donahue, but both are at their best off the bounce. Rhine, for now, looks like the quick fix. Long and athletic, she can rebound, run the floor and finish around the rim. Against Simpson, she showed she could finish through contact, scoring four baskets after being fouled.
Donahue will likely be the starter for the foreseeable future, and Rhine will be a weapon coming of the bench. With their fast-paced offense, the Bulldogs will likely make up for Jonas’s scoring. In place of her rebounding, Donahue, Rhine, Dean and Wendell will all have to crash the boards to compensate. They did so on Sunday, collecting 25 boards.
3. Where do the freshmen fit?
Sammie Bachrodt started both exhibition contests in the backcourt with Ingle and Dean. Nicole Miller came off the bench to run the top of the full-court press. Rhine scored 34 points in the two contests and Madelyne Johnson also saw more than 12 minutes in both games.
There are only 10 players on the roster, so all of them will get to play. Baranczyk praised Bachrodt on Sunday, citing her high basketball IQ and active hands on defense.
Miller, a high-school cross-country runner, was active at the top of the Bulldogs’ press Sunday, hounding the Simpson guards. She’s not yet the primary backup to Ingle — that duty falls to sophomore Pagie Greiner — but her fresh legs coming onto the court can frustrate tired guards at the end of the game.
Rhine carried the offensive load when Wendell was on the bench Sunday, scoring 24 points in 22 minutes. In the two exhibitions, she and Miller have been the two best scoring options off the bench. That’s good news for a team where depth is still a question mark.
Wendell gets injured, and the Bulldogs can’t replace her production. Without Jonas, Drake struggles to rebound and is continually beaten under the basket. The offense struggles to score like it did last season, and Drake finishes around .500 and far out of the MVC title race.
Wendell repeats or improves upon a phenomenal sophomore season and is supported with production from Ingle and Dean. Donahue and Rhine combine to make up for the loss of Jonas, and Miller, Rhine, Greiner and Cortni Rush produce enough to keep Drake in the game while the starters rest on the bench. The Bulldogs win more than 20 games, win the MVC tournament and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.