There are seven new faces on the roster alongside returning veterans, including senior guard Julia Ayrault and senior guard/forward Tory Ozment, who were both out the entirety of the 2021-22 season due to injuries.
The non-conference season is set to tip off Oct. 30 with an exhibition game versus Saginaw Valley. Until then, it's grind time for the Spartans.
New faces to watch
Between transfers and incoming freshman, there’s plenty of new players on the roster. Graduate guard Kamaria McDaniel, junior guard Gabby Elliott and graduate guard Stephanie Visscher are the newest editions from the portal.
“Steph is a double digit scorer,” Merchant said. “Gabby, we all know what she can do, she's a double digit scorer. Then we have Kamaria, who really does score the ball, but I think compared to where shes been at, she doesn't have to do it all here."
Visscher is another Sweden native, joining sophomore guard/forward Matilda Ekh.
“She’s [Visscher] got a motor and an intelligence about her," Merchant said. "All foreign kids know how to play the game. Their skill is very well-rounded, they can read secondary defenders. ... The way they learn the game and play the game over there, they know how to make the right basketball play.”
The four other newbies are made up of freshman guards: Theryn Hallock, Abbey Kimball, Olivia Porter and Maddy Skorupski.
“They’re just gritty [Kimball and Hallock]," Merchant said. "They're team kids but Theryn can really guard the ball full court and cause havoc. They have good IQ’s, their efforts are good. I think the pace of the game won’t be a problem but their reaction time to the pace of the game is a little bit slower.”
A season without Clouden
It’s going to be a big change for MSU to play without All-American and current WNBA pro Nia Clouden on the court. She was fifth in the Big Ten and first on the team in scoring, averaging 20 points per game last season, while also placing ninth in the conference and second on the team with 4.2 assists per game.
“You don't get to hang up a banner for nothing, just because you're average, so losing a first round draft pick, that’s a loss,” Merchant said. “I think with the transfer portal we’ve been able to, maybe, help replace some of that load. ... We have multiple guys that can elevate themselves to make up for some of that scoring."
Sophomore guard DeeDee Hagemann stepped up last season, alongside Clouden, after losing teammates to injuries. Merchant has high expectations of last year's Big Ten All-Freshman team selection heading into the new season.
“We need her to be a bit more of a consistent shot maker," Merchant said. "She never takes bad shots ever, the kid's a pass first PG, everybody in the country knows that. She makes our team better because she sets people up. ... A challenge for her this off season was to really work on her shot a little bit, get her guide hand out of that shot, and get a little more efficient. ... She gets to the rim and she scores the ball or gets a foul, but I'm not sure she capitalizes as good as she could from a percentage standpoint."
Julia Ayrault and Tory Ozment are back
Veteran players Ayrault and Ozment are back and healthy despite significant injuries last season.
“I think with Tory, she's really starting to come into her own and be aggressive attacking the rim as a scorer," Merchant said. "She was a player, at times, that gave us something ... but wasn’t as aggressive on offense as she could've been.”
It’s been more challenging for Ayrault to get back into the game after tearing her Lisfranc ligament on the top of her foot early last season.
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"Julia, right now, she's not 100%. She's cleared, but she's fighting her lungs a little bit," Merchant said. "She's not in the basketball shape she needs to be in. So, her thing is getting her body back, but her mind is great. The kid has got a good IQ for the game and a good feel for the game."
Looking at the non-conference season
The Spartans are gearing up for non-conference play starting Oct. 30.
“We’ve got the PK 85 and we’ll be challenged there with three really good teams depending on who we play, then the ACC challenge game will be good," Merchant said. "We’re gonna scrimmage Louisville right out of the gates. ... We’ll be exposed pretty quickly 18 days from now.”
MSU will have five straight home games to begin the season, followed by an away game at Central Michigan. Then the Spartans will head to the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland on Nov. 24 for an opening matchup versus Iowa State, the team that bounced Michigan State from the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
McDaniel and Merchant emphasize mental health
McDaniel has brought her passion for mental health awareness to the green and white. She and Merchant have begun working on a series focusing on student athletes and their mental well being.
“I think a lot of these student athletes go through something, whether it be some level of performance anxiety, depression or whatever it is. I think there’s a lot on their plate," Merchant said. "As coaches, it’s really important that we advocate for them. ... At the end of the day it’s bigger than basketball. Yeah we gotta win, I get it, but we’ve gotta make sure they’re alright inside and out.”
Merchant plans to form and maintain relationships with her players to monitor their mental health and work alongside McDaniel in bringing attention to the topic.
McDaniel started her college year at Penn State and then went to Baylor before returning to her home state as a Spartan. She spoke about her mental health challenges and how it shaped her into the person and player she is today.
“It’s been transformational," McDaniel said. "I’ve learned who Kamaria is; now, I'm content with that. It’s taken a lot of pressure and anxiety off me in terms of my performance because I value myself other than as a basketball player. ... I’m loving my journey, I'm thankful for everything that happened and I'm ready for what's to come.”
MSU working on defense
Merchant emphasized the need to improve defensively in the upcoming season.
“The defensive side of the ball, we were not the best with last year, I was disappointed,” Merchant said. “We got better towards the end of the season for sure, but we’re placing more emphasis on that side. I think we have the athletes to do it.”
A few new faces might be just what Merchant needs for a championship title this season.
“A lot of new faces, a lot of new pieces,” Ayrault said. "It just feels like a different energy. It feels like people are down for whatever and we’re gonna ride for each other. Just like last year, even though we had all these injuries and we had a lot of stuff that happened, people were there for each other and we did what we had to do. It’s a similar vibe this year.”
With a packed 17-player roster, Michigan State hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last year.
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