When Suzy Merchant looks to the Breslin Center floor during preseason practice, the MSU women’s basketball coach sees a familiar challenge: trying to remain among the top of the Big Ten without three starters from the previous year.
The past two seasons have wiped out the depth of a program that’s finished among the top two in the conference each of the past four years, and as the Spartans look to replace nearly 50 percent of their scoring from a year ago, a new generation of players is emerging.
Merchant said it’s an exciting time and opportunity for herself and the program, which will attempt to build off the success of the past five years with a cast of players recruited exclusively by Merchant for the first time in her MSU career.
“It’s a very youthful group, and on some days, that’s very exciting, and on other days, that can make for a long day,” Merchant said.
“There are definitely some (similar) characteristics from this time last year. … It’s going to take us time to figure out who emerges and what kind of consistent play we can get.”
One of the players who will be relied upon is guard Klarissa Bell, who Merchant said “came on last year” after being inserted into the starting lineup more than 20 games into the season and proved to be an effective scorer after previously averaging 7.1 minutes per game.
The Spartans’ head coach said Bell had a “tremendous offseason as a scorer” and recently was named a captain by her teammates.
“I have a little longer of a leash. Before, it was two chain links, and now it’s 15, so I think that’s a big thing for me,” Bell said.
“I think there’s lots of pressure that comes with that, but I’m accepting of the pressure. I’m ready for it. … I think I know what my role is more than I did last year, so that just gives me more confidence to go out there and play without thinking. Not second guessing myself is going to be big.”
Likely to join Bell in MSU’s starting lineup is Aerial Powers, a freshman guard and high school teammate of sophomore center Madison Williams, who Merchant said already has shown ability to be an instant scorer.
Powers said she’s excited to join the college game and smiled at the thought of being a starter to open the season.
“I’m more of a slasher than a shooter,” Powers said in describing her game.
Helping Powers transition is senior forward Courtney Schiffauer, entering her second season as a captain.
Schiffauer said she learned a lot from her experience as a captain last year, and with an especially young roster, she knows it will be important for her to help the younger players find their footing.
“I think (it’s) just being there for the players,” Schiffauer said of her leadership style.
“I have a lot of experience, so for any questions or if they don’t know what they’re doing, (I can) show everybody what has to get done, what needs to get done to be successful. I’ve been on successful teams and not very successful teams, and I know what we did and didn’t do.”
Still, Merchant said the team’s youth doesn’t change the program’s expectations, which remain contending for a Big Ten title.
“One of my big things as a coach in this program — I always believe that we don’t make excuses,” Merchant said.
“We have no excuses, and the expectation is still to win. That’s how we’re built, and that’s what we’re going to do is find a way to win.”