MINNEAPOLIS - Lindsay Whalen took the court for the first time on Tuesday with the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team in her fourth season, and probably cracked a smile.
After joking that she started her season spilling coffee on brand new sneakers and on the court at Athletes Village, Whalen noted the Gophers had 13 of their 16 rostered players on the practice court. This time last year, they had three players practicing between injuries and COVID-19 issues.
Minnesota started last season with seven players available for its first game. The Gophers finished the season with eight. Seeing 13 on the court at the same time was a sight for sore eyes.
"It’s a lot different than three. We’re so much further ahead than we were last year at this time," Whalen said. "It definitely feels good."
Whalen said between the summer and preseason, she’s already had between 20 and 30 workouts with her team as they officially began the season. The Gophers have 12 of their 16 players back from last season, including their top four scorers.
Add in two freshman and transfers Bailey Helgren and Deja Winters, and the Gophers have new-found depth at almost every position. Whalen said the early theme of preseason camp is to compete.
"We’ve been through a pandemic, ups and downs, I feel really good about this group and I feel like they’re ready to take that step," Whalen said. "If they keep competing how they’re competing every day in practice, we’ll have a fun season."
By that step, Whalen means finishing in the top half of the Big Ten, getting deeper in the conference tournament and earning an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Gophers return the talented backcourt duo of Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia, who each averaged 14.5 points per game last season and were threats on the perimeter. Gadiva Hubbard is also back after averaging 11.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. Kadi Sissoko is back as the interior presence after averaging 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Minnesota finished 8-13 last season, including 7-11 in Big Ten play.
Take a look at the roster, and you’ll see something very interesting. Hubbard, a sixth year graduate student, will wear No. 13 this season. It'll be the first time that number is worn since Whalen graduated.
That jersey comes with a bit of a burden, and an expectation.
"The decision was mine. It was never retired, it was honored and it’s up there. I remember overhearing Diva saying that was her number, she was told that she couldn’t wear it and I said we’re going to change that," Whalen said. "She stuck here all four years with me, so the number she wanted to wear, so I’m really proud she’s going to wear it. I like to give her a hard time, she’ll make a pass and I’m like ‘there was somebody that played here that could make that pass too. I can’t remember her name, it was too long ago.’ I love that kid. We’ve been through thick and thin, so I couldn’t think of anybody better to wear it."
The Gophers have about a month until opening the season with an exhibition against Minnesota-Crookston on Halloween. They’ll open the season, for real, on Nov. 9 against Jacksonville at Williams Arena.