Sometimes the line between success and failure is barely visible. Be it a lack of execution when it counts, a poor officiating call, or a flat-out inexplicably unfortunate bounce of the ball, that it was right there feeling sometimes reverberates after a game, or a season.
Wake Forest’s 2017-18 would be a solid recent example of thin lines. After going .500 the prior year and beating Bethune-Cookman in the opening round of the WNIT, the Demon Deacons went 14-17 last season; 5-11 in ACC play. The numbers don’t quite match up with the wins and losses, though.
Coach Jen Hoover’s squad posted positive scoring (+0.8) and rebounding (+4.1) margins and averaged 10 more assists per game than their opponents. If the record was a losing one, the proof of concept, at least, was there on the stat sheet. In 2018-19, Wake Forest will have an opportunity to take the next step.
A solid group of veterans returns to pair with their incoming freshmen and upcoming sophomores. Hoover is enthusiastic about the way her squad is coming together in the preseason.
“They’ve all collectively taken on more of an overall team leadership, I think,” she said. “We have leaders by example in Alex Sharp and Elissa Penna, because everything they do everyday in practice is just at such a high rate and a high pace.”
“But then vocally, you’ve started to see Gina Conti, who’s now a sophomore running the point guard position for us has become more comfortable with being vocal on the court. … I just think that combination of them now, kind of collectively doing it together has been a good thing.”
Sharp, a junior guard from Melbourne, Australia, started every game for the Deacs last year and averaged 10.5 points and 8.4 boards a game while also dishing 94 total assists. Penna is the team’s offensive fulcrum. The senior forward from Bergamo, Italy put up 15.8ppg and 4.5rpg in 2017-18 and has been named to both the Preseason All-ACC Team and the Cheryl Miller Award Watch List going into this season. Conti will be new to her full-time duties as a starter and primary offensive initiator. While the sophomore hasn’t shown a great propensity for scoring (3.2 ppg in 18.6 minutes last year), she did manage 84 assists in a limited role, which suggests solid potential to succeed in her expanded responsibilities.
Sharp and Penna aren’t the only players on Hoover’s roster who come from outside the US. Freshmen Ellen Hahne and Christina Morra hail respectively from Sweden and Canada, and sophomore Ivana Raca is from Belgrade, Serbia. Given how international basketball operates in terms of player development, those players give Wake Forest a unique advantage in some respects.
“They’ve all come in playing at a high level, and played against ‘grown women’ if you will, already,” Hoover said. “We have nothing equivalent of that here in the U.S. If you’re a high-school player you’re playing against high-school players. Whereas over there, if you’re in high school, you’re playing against 25, 28, 30-year-olds in your clubs. We find that diversity and the confidence they have from playing over there just translates so well for us.”
She noted also that aspect Euro style of basketball, largely predicated on off-ball movement and working selflessly for the best look, has been adopted as something of a team ethos.
“We could be one of our better passing teams this year, just because we have people that have a great feel for space on the court and cutting, and I think that’s across the board,” Hoover said. “One of them laughed during a scrimmage recently when she missed a shot because she just thought it was such a great pass to her. They just love to play with each other. They will pass and give up a shot for an open teammate because they understand that kind of ‘draw-to and kick it’ because there’s someone always open.”
With the offensive game established and clicking, Hoover is putting an emphasis on the Wake Forest’s defense. The team’s foul rate, in particular, leaves room for improvement, but there is some upside to be exploited given the team’s collective athleticism and wingspan. The strategy is a simple one:
“Don’t put other teams at the free throw line as much as we did last year, and really kind of use our length, we’re one of the longest and biggest teams in the country this year, and that has to be a strength,” Hoover said. “We have to make people shoot contested shots over us and limit their rebounds.”
Despite losing senior sharp shooter Ariel Stephenson (out after shoulder surgery, and whose production will be sorely missed) the roster has plenty of depth. Returning veterans Tyra Whitehead Ona Udoh should provide solid-or-better minutes, and Hoover says the eager and vocal sophomores and the new freshmen (“I think their heads are still spinning a little bit adjusting to our pace, but they’re getting more comfortable every day”) will be ready to step in and contribute.
While Hoover’s preference would be a movement-based, four-out game, she also sees potential for plenty of lineup flexibility:
“We’re going to have two different kinds of lineups at two different times,” she said. “If we’re going to have two traditional big posts we’re going to have to play a different kind of offense than we do when we have Ivana Raca playing the four for us.”
Wake Forest appears to have the requisite vision and required puzzle pieces in place. Talent? Check. Leadership? Check. Game plan? Check. So with everything dialed in, how does Hoover see the season unfolding?
“We kind of had established (in recent seasons) that we were going to be the top of the bottom, and none of us are happy with that,” she said. “We gave games away last year. We came out and played really well to begin with and just weren’t able to finish them out. This group, I think, has learned from that. Now we have to take the next step forward.”