Oct. 15, 2007
The transition to a new conference, especially one such as the Sun Belt, is never an easy road. The Florida Atlantic University women's basketball team found challenges around every corner during the 2006-07 season, but came away with some important experiences.
"I didn't really know what to expect heading into last season," said Head Coach Chancellor Dugan. "I knew we had lost over 75% of our offense and 65% of our rebounding from the year before through graduation, and perhaps more importantly we had lost a lot of leadership."
After the loss of one of the program's elite in Shontavia Williams, the Owls were forced to find new options, relying heavily on underclassmen and upperclassmen who hadn't been in major roles in the past. A tough task when you consider the Sun Belt was the eighth-rated conference in the nation in terms of RPI in 2006-07. In addition, the Owls were faced with the prospect of heading into unfamiliar territory on nearly every road trip.
"When you talk about high-level Division I basketball you have to talk about the Sun Belt," said Dugan. "It also didn't make it any easier that we didn't know where anything was, even the arenas, when we traveled. Everything as far as travel was brand new. We had absolutely no bearings at all and had to start totally fresh."
Despite the team's struggles, Dugan was pleased with her team's effort during the season.
"The team never got down and I was really impressed by that," she said. "They kept playing hard and doing what we wanted them to do." Florida Atlantic will once again be faced with the prospect of relying heavily on underclassmen, after losing four of their five starters to graduation from a year ago.
"Our seniors last year were great," said Dugan." They were put in a tough spot and in my eyes they came through. The record doesn't show it, but they led the team both on the court and off the court."
"If you look at almost every category it was a senior leading the way statistically. We'll really miss that group, especially four-year players like Crystal Randolph and Sally N'Diaye. You can't replace those players with an incoming freshman."
Despite the team's record from a year ago, there is a lot of reason for optimism. FAU lost eight games by 10 points or fewer, and in several other games the Owls had a lead or were within five in the second half.
"I look back on almost every game last year and there was a point in the second half where the game was going to be either won or lost on our end," said Dugan. "When something good happens it snowballs. But when you have a lot of youth, it's a challenge to get those good things to happen."
Despite losing four starters, Coach Dugan's style incorporates nearly the entire bench on a nightly basis, something that has made the group of returning players much stronger than would normally be the case.
Dugan likes to put constant pressure on the opposing team by pushing the ball up the court and applying defensive pressure the length of the floor. This means that players on the bench are an option at any moment during a game. This allows younger players to mature quicker in some cases, and nearly everyone who returns has significant playing time on their resume.
"As a player you want to be able to get out there and contribute," said Dugan. "They have to show me what they can do in practice, and if they do that consistently they're going to get a chance."
The area with the most new faces is up front, where four of the five newcomers will line up. The Owls return just one post player from a year ago in Breana Cox, who is questionable to start the season due to off-season surgery.
Momoh (North Dakota State College) and Thompson (IRCC) come to FAU via junior colleges, while Jones and Givens emerged from the high school ranks.
Thompson, a 6-1 forward from Ocala, FL, brings a lot of versatility to the Owls program.
"Mercedes is a sit-down back-to-the-basket type player who can also step out and shoot from range," said Dugan. "She's a great passer and a great communicator. She talks on defense and does all the little things that are important on winning basketball teams. She's going to get a lot of tough rebounds for us."
Momoh is a player Dugan feels runs the floor very well and is smooth in the post.
"She's very long and wiry with good moves on the inside, but she has also shown the ability to step out and knock down the 15-foot jumper," said Dugan.
Givens (Orlando, FL) and Jones (Carrollton, GA) will also see significant playing time as freshmen and could be a key to this year's squad. Givens has exceptional range that extends beyond the arc and has won every place she's been. Her high school team won two state championships and her AAU team won the AAU National Championship.
"Every time I watched her play and her team needed a tough rebound or a big stop, Jamie was the one getting that rebound and creating that defensive stand," said Dugan.
Jones, a rare left-handed post player, is an imposing presence on the low post.
"She's going to take up space and if she gets her hand on the ball, it's hers," said Dugan. "She can shoot from range as well or take you off the dribble. A left-handed post player is so difficult to guard because it's such a different look for the defender."
The small forward is a crucial position as well for this year's team, because as Dugan points out nearly every team in the conference has an attacking player with experience at that position.
"We'll probably move Brittney Crenshaw to that spot to compete with Carla Stubbs, who plays very big and can rebound the ball very well from the guard position," said Dugan. "We could also have Carla spend some time at shooting guard."
Susan Beauzil, who Dugan reports had a great spring, will compete for minutes at small forward as well.
In the backcourt the Owls lost Randolph, who was the team's best threat from beyond the arc for the past few seasons, but have several players returning.
Brittany Bowe will get some time at the shooting guard and will serve as the backup point guard as well. Shuteamia Brayboy returns as the team's starting point guard and has issued the second-most assists in FAU history.
"Shuteamia is the one starter who will have her name written in ink," said Dugan. "She's going to have a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility out there. I think she's ready for it. There was a point in time last year where her maturity level really bumped up a huge notch and she has been running the offense for a long time."
Adel Lizama, the team's only other senior besides Brayboy, will also see time at the guard spot.
"I look at what we've got and I'm really excited about this year," said Dugan. "I know we're unproven and haven't even put on a game uniform yet, but I'm excited about what we'll potentially be able to do."
The road will once again be difficult, as the Sun Belt is expected to be among the best conferences in the country.
"In the Sun Belt you don't have a night off. You better be ready every single night, home or away, it doesn't matter," said Dugan. "We will be better prepared this year and the players will know more about what to expect. When you have a little bit of a comfort level your expectation level goes up. I think we'll be ready this year and hopefully turn that into some wins."
When the Owls do take the floor this season, they will do so in recently renovated FAU Arena. "The Burrow" underwent $10 million worth of renovations over the summer, featuring refurbished locker rooms, lobby and restrooms, a new scoreboard, chair back seating on the west sideline and an enhanced exterior. In addition, a new team store is located in the lobby and a ticket booth has been added in front of the Arena to minimize congestion inside.
"Getting into the arena is something we're really excited for," said Dugan. "The community, the players and everybody in the FAU family are going to be proud of the arena. I've had the privilege to sneak a few peaks at the locker rooms and it's exciting to know that we're going to be able to utilize those areas much more in the immediate future."
The new additions to the Arena will give the Owls a renewed sense of home-court advantage, an aspect that can really excite a team.
"Our arena is already a very loud building," said Dugan. "To come out and have a good crowd is very exciting. Our players love it and feed off it. The teams we coach are fun to watch because they work hard every night, so hopefully we can keep them entertained."
When all is said and done, Dugan has just one goal as the Owls head into their second season in the Sun Belt:
"I want to see improvement. I want to see us moving in the direction of vying for a conference championship and if we can just take it one day at a time and focus on getting better each day we'll have a shot."