By MICHAEL BLEACH
HOUGHTON - This is not your typical championship team.
Michigan Tech’s Jillian Ritchie drives to the basket in a game against Grand Valley?State last season. The Huskies open their 2013-14 campaign tonight at Concordia-St. Paul.
Picked by the coaches to defend their GLIAC North Division title, the No. 21-ranked Michigan Tech women's basketball team enters its season opener today at Concordia-St. Paul with a junior, three sophomores and a true freshman penciled in as the starters.
Making matters more irregular, that freshman, Morgan Anderson, will be handling the majority of the point guard duties for Tech, trying to master college basketball's most cerebral position in less than a month's time on the court with her teammates.
And Anderson is doing this all as the follow-up act to Sam Hoyt, who if she isn't the greatest point guard in Tech's prominent hoops history, certainly belongs at the forefront of that discussion.
A Glance at the GLIAC
|Michigan Tech||21-9||17-5||The biggest question will be guard play, as the Huskies replace Sam Hoyt and Emma Veach, who helped Tech have the best 3-point shooting percentage (.406) in the GLIAC last year.|
|Wayne State||21-9||17-5||Voters showed faith in coach Carrie Lohr's physical, interior-focused system despite a roster with four returners and five transfers, four from the Division I ranks.|
|Grand Valley St.||19-8||15-7||Briauna Taylor and three other starters are gone, but GVSU returns some pieces and Daina Grazulis (Marquette) will be called to help bolster the frontcourt.|
|Ferris St.||19-8||15-7||Senior Sarah DeShone is the best returning player in the league and the Bulldogs return three others with starting experience after injuries dragged down their season with a 3-8 finish.|
|Saginaw Valley St.||13-14||11-11||Last year's GLIAC Freshman of the Year Emily Wendling is already ruled out due to injury, hampering a multi-year rebuilding effort that bore fruit last year in SVSU's first GLIAC Tournament appearance in six years.|
|Northern Michigan||13-14||10-12||A dozen letterwinners return from a team that was a tough out last year despite no seniors. Will still be a tough out, especially if they cut down on the division-worst 18.6 turnovers per game.|
|Northwood||12-16||10-12||The North Division grind caught up with NU, leading to a 2-6 record after Feb. 1. Must shoot better in 2013-14 after a division-worst .375 field-goal percentage last year.|
|Lake Superior St.||5-21||4-18||Only one senior lost, but that senior, Maria Blazejewski, was essentially LSSU's main threat. And that was on a team that finished 14th in the league in points per game.|
|Ashland||37-1||21-1||The defending national champion but lost eight players off that team, including their entire frontcourt and their top-scoring guard, but what's left is good enough to be ranked No. 15 in the country.|
|Findlay||24-6||19-3||The Oilers were the only team to beat Ashland all season but must maintain their frenzied approach without their two top scorers or coach Kate Cummings, who resigned just six weeks ago.|
|Hillsdale||11-14||8-14||The bet is that Hillsdale won't be down for long after a season lost to turnovers and poor defense in which the Chargers started league play 1-8.|
|Malone||14-12||10-12||The Pioneers return 12 letterwinners off a presentable 2012-13 squad that won, among other places, at Grand Valley last year.|
|Tiffin||11-15||8-14||Guard Karli Mast's return from an injury in the first weekend of conference play last season should boost an offense that was among the league's worst in 2012-13.|
|Ohio Dominican||11-15||7-15||A 6-1 finish papered over a dreadful 1-12 start to league play. With no seniors on last year's team and a surprisingly decent rebounding margin, a second chance might benefit the Panthers this time.|
|Walsh||8-19||5-17||Other than a shocking late-season win over Wayne State that gave Tech a share of the GLIAC North, the Cavs didn't do much in their first GLIAC season thanks to the league's worst defense.|
|Lake Erie||4-23||2-20||After making the GLIAC Tournament in 2011-12, the Storm was the league's worst team last year, particularly on offense, averaging 51.8 ppg on 32.6 percent shooting. Ugh.|
Still, for all that, the preseason tabbing of the Huskies as favorites makes sense for one prominent reason.
They enjoy an overwhelming amount of talent across the court.
It would be easy to make an argument for any one of forwards Kylie Moxley and Jillian Ritchie or guards Mackenzie Perttu and Danielle Blake to earn a spot on the preseason All-GLIAC team.
The rotation can be filled out with seniors (Paige Albi), height (6-foot-4 Emily Harrison), shooting (Kelcey Traynoff) and two more offensively-gifted freshmen (Brenna Heise and Kelli Guy) at coach Kim Cameron's discretion.
And at the center of all this, trying to distribute the ball to the right person at the right time, will be Anderson.
Most definitely, this is not your typical championship team.
"We are asking a lot of her," Cameron said. "She is going to have some big responsibilities to start with."
The Huskies are no stranger to starting talented freshmen, with Ritchie, Perttu and Moxley all eventually starting their true freshman season while Blake took just one redshirt year before she cracked the lineup.
But the point guard position is a bit different, with no chance to sit passive for a possession or catch your breath for a minute.
And all freshmen, regardless of position, will go through growing pains when asked to play that many minutes.
"I remember the first time I got on the court I was a deer in the headlights," Ritchie said. "It took a few games to calm down and a few games to get in rhythm."
"A little nervous, yes. It's definitely a whole new stage, that's for sure," Anderson added.
To start with, the responsibilities will be simple.
No one player would be asked to replace all the influence Hoyt had - much less a freshman - but Anderson's role will be even more limited than usual with a bevy of scoring options available to the Huskies.
Moxley (9.7 points per game last year) will provide the go-to presence in the post, Perttu is comfortable catching and shooting and explosive off the bounce, Ritchie knocked down 41 percent of her threes last season and Blake swoops to the rim with superior length and athleticism.
Anderson just has to make sure she finds the correct matchup to exploit and knock down the occasional open shot to keep a defense honest.
"We are asking Morgan for toughness and to take care of the basketball," Cameron added. "She will have pretty simple instructions to start with, and we will have the other (starters) who have had more playing time step up their roles."
"It is a tough, tough transition for her, especially in such a leadership role," Ritchie added. "As a freshman, everything is kind of confusing. So I've just been telling her she has to be aggressive. She can't pass up the open shot, she has to call out the play, get us organized. She has to be in control."
In trying to replace Hoyt, Anderson has one advantage she has been keen to utilize.
The super-senior has stuck around this semester as a student assistant while she finishes up her degree student teaching, and oversees practice daily.
"If she sees something little in practice, she will pull me aside and say 'you can do this differently,'" Anderson said. "She has been awesome to have for any questions I have, anything really."
With junior point guard Michelle Gaedke sidelined indefinitely while recovering from a knee injury, Cameron will give Anderson a long leash, if only because she doesn't have many other options.
Sophomore Kerry Gardner has been earning the majority of the backup point guard minutes in practice, but with just 67 minutes of action total last season, is almost as fresh as Anderson.
As a more natural scorer, Gardner slots better as a combo-guard as well.
"Kerry has made some really significant jumps from last year to this year, and that is without college game experience," Cameron said. "And I commend her for that. She came in ready to play."
The Huskies will come out challenged right out of the gate, facing the No. 9 team in the country in Concordia-St. Paul tonight.
From there they will have just two weeks and three games until conference play begins.
Ready or not.
"We are not there yet, but when this clicks, we are really, really talented," Cameron said. "As soon as we get this all together, we are going to compete."