Cougars hope youth will propel team back to NCAA tourney

2011-10-14T00:30:00Z 2013-11-06T21:45:09Z Cougars hope youth will propel team back to NCAA tourneyMatt Petersen - Daily Herald Daily Herald
October 14, 2011 12:30 am  • 

The annual preseason excitement was there at BYU women's basketball media day, but so was a business-like edge normally held back until the games start counting.

The Cougars want to get started already, if only to get back where they feel they belong - the NCAA tournament.

Last year BYU went 23-8, a decent record, but insufficient for a tournament berth. The Cougars didn't feel snubbed, only frustrated with themselves for losing games they were favored to win. Losses to Northwestern, Nevada and Utah, among others, still burn an offseason later.

"We have to win games we're supposed to win," senior guard Haley Steed said. "Last year there were a couple games in preseason that we should have won, we were supposed to win, and we just let them slip away. To me, those two or three games made all the difference of getting into the NCAA tournament."

To bridge that difference in the West Coast Conference, BYU will rely heavily on one of their most talented recruiting pools in recent history. Nine freshmen round out this year's roster, including former Springville star Lexi Eaton. The six-foot swingman has already impressed in the first two weeks of practice, boasting a skill set that strongly reminds head coach Jeff Judkins of recently graduated Mindy Bonham.

Bonham led the team last year in scoring and assists and was second in steals.

"[Eaton] is a player that could come in with the position we lost," Judkins said. "She's very similar to Mindy. It's a good opportunity for her. She can play the ways he's used to, and that is run the floor, defend, be aggressive offensively, look to drive to the basket. Those are her strengths and those are Mindy's strengths and I think it fits in pretty good."

With Eaton already expected to contribute and a plethora of wingmen behind her, Steed (changed from Hall after getting married in the offseason) is expected to shift over to point guard after playing off-guard the last two seasons. Despite leading the team last year in three-pointers made (65), Steed feels the switch serves her better in the long run.

"It's my natural position, so it's where I feel more comfortable," Steed said. "It's been fun in practice the last couple weeks to play a lot of point guard."

With Steed directing the offense and Eaton's ability to drive and draw attention, Judkins expects the Cougars to continue having plenty of opportunities from three-point range, an area BYU hit from seven times per game last season. Steed admitted the number of targets around her may be what pushes the team back into the national spotlight this season.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," Steed said. "We have great guards. [Mackenzie Nielson] and Lexi on the outside, they're just really versatile. They can shoot and drive. With Jen [Hamson] in the middle and [Kristen] Riley in there, I just feel we have a lot of weapons coming from different places."

Hamson is perhaps the biggest reason, literal and figurative, for Judkins' excitement over the 2011-12 season. The 6-7 sophomore came on strong late last season, posting 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks against Wyoming and 17 points and nine rebounds against Utah State.

"I will bet you that by the time [Hamson] walks out of here, she will be the MVP in volleyball and the MVP in basketball," Judkins said. "She has gotten so much better in basketball just since last year...Last year I just said ‘stay on the block.' Now I'm having her come out, flash high post. I'm having her set picks on the ball, get more involved. She could be the best player in the league in both sports, easily."

Hamson, along with the rest of the Cougars, will need to make such strides in a conference boasting perennial power Gonzaga. The Bulldogs dominated BYU last season 91-64.

"Gonzaga's dominated for so long," Judkins said. "It's hard, but we believe we can do it."

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