It might just be an exhibition, but the Kansas University women’s basketball team’s players and coaches aren’t any less excited about getting the 2011-12 season started.
The result won’t count toward the Jayhawks’ record when they play host to Emporia State at 8 tonight at Allen Fieldhouse. KU coach Bonnie Henrickson said that doesn’t make it insignificant.
“It’s really a barometer for us,” the eighth-year Kansas coach said of her team’s first chance to break out of the preseason practice grind with live competition.
As Henrickson put it, when the smell of hot dogs and popcorn is present court-side, it is time for the players to get down to business.
“They’re kind of champing at the bit to play somebody else, and I think that’ll be good for us,” she said.
The sense of urgency will be dialed up a notch with one of the best Division II programs around coming to the fieldhouse. The Hornets won the national championship in 2010 and were 20-9 last season, when they advanced to the MIAA Tournament title game for the eighth time in program history.
ESU opens the season ranked second in both the MIAA coaches and media polls.
According to Henrickson, that will benefit KU.
“It’s been good for us,” she said of the series with ESU, which Kansas leads 6-0 (3-0 in exhibitions, 3-0 in regular season).
“We know they’ll come in here and compete and have a great game plan.”
Second-year Hornets coach Jory Collins has four starters returning from last season, as well as nearly 70 percent of the team’s scoring and 63 percent of its rebounding.
Leading scorer, sophomore Kelsey Balcom, averaged 11.6 points and seven rebounds last year. Henrickson said the 6-footer, who knocked down 23 three-pointers as a freshman, helps ESU spread the floor. With a handful of other long-range options surrounding Balcom — an Olathe South High teammate of Jayhawks freshman guard Natalie Knight — Henrickson said the Hornets play stylistically similar to Big 12 foes Iowa State and Kansas State.
Those ready to spot up and fire from long range for ESU include junior guard Rachel Hanf, who averaged 10.8 points last year and buried 56 three-pointers, sophomore guard Rheanna Egli (35 from downtown) and junior guard Jocelyn Cummings (23 three-pointers).
Of course, Kansas won’t be lacking in talent, either. The Jayhawks (21-13 last year) are led by a talented trio of junior captains. Forward Carolyn Davis led the Big 12 in field-goal percentage (.66) in 2010-11, point guard Angel Goodrich averaged a league-high 6.3 assists a game, and guard Monica Engelman led the conference in three-point accuracy, hitting 43.1 percent of her attempts from behind the arc.
Senior forward Aishah Sutherland and Knight round out the starting five for Kansas, and sophomore guard Keena Mays (12.1 points) provides a spark off the bench.
Henrickson said she will have a specific list of goals for her team’s preseason opener, and the KU staff will be tracking everything from defensive field-goal percentage to deflections and charges as they get their players back in the habit of being “process-oriented.” Their primary defensive goal will be not to allow ESU dribble penetration to the middle of the floor, she added.
The coach expects the exhibition to allow her and her staff figure out what things the Jayhawks do well and what things need cleaning up.
“For us to play like we want to play and get out and dictate, pressure and be disruptive, it’s a great chance for us to be able to do that,” Henrickson said.
And it’s a chance for the players to play in front of a crowd, instead of closed practices.
“I get a sense that they’re really excited,” the coach said of the KU players.
KU has an all-time record of 38-9 in exhibition games and has won 12 straight since a 2004 loss to the West Coast All-Stars.