With practice set to start for U women, Whalen is ‘energized’

There is so much coach Lindsay Whalen doesn’t know yet.

Not long ago the coronavirus threatened to stop the 2020-21 Gophers women’s basketball season before it started. Even now, with official practices set to start Wednesday, Whalen doesn’t know yet what the shortened, probably five-game preseason will look like. Or when, precisely, the official Big Ten Conference season will begin.

And yet, her overriding emotion as official practices commence?

“I would say energized,” Whalen said.

Whalen is about to enter her third season. Last year a promising start was waylaid by some internal strife — manifesting in the suspension and, ultimately, the transfer of leading scorer Destiny Pitts — leading to a 16-15 record.

But this team feels different.

Whalen and her staff have put an added emphasis on culture. For a team with three starters returning, this season’s Gophers will look far different.

There is the influx of a strong recruiting class, transfers that will add depth and the pending Gophers debut of 6-2 Kadi Sissoko.

“They come in and have a good energy,” Whalen said of her team. “This is a group that’s fun to be around, a group that finds ways to celebrate their teammates. They’re communicating a ton.”

Whalen is, too.

“I’m more demanding than I was,” she said. “And more apt to express that than I was in my first two years.”

But it’s a challenge.

Whalen has a strong class of sophomores returning. Both point guard Jasmine Powell (16.1 points, 3.1 assists) and shooting guard Sara Scalia (10.8 points) were named to Big Ten all-freshman teams. Center Klarke Sconiers came on strong at the end of the season.

Senior guard/forward Gadiva Hubbard (11.2 points. 3.4 rebounds) is one of the program’s best three-point shooters. The Gophers got deeper with graduate transfer forward Laura Bagwell Katalinich, the addition of junior college post player Daja Woodard and an incoming freshman class that includes guard Alexia Smith — the first five-star recruit to come to Minnesota in nearly a decade — along with post Erin Hedman and high-scoring guard Caroline Strande.

And then there is Sissoko, a transfer from Syracuse who sat out last season. Whalen is convinced Sissoko has the skill and ability to be one of the conference’s best players.

“She has the size, the skill set, to have a major, major impact in the conference,” Whalen said. “She will be a player. At the same time, she hasn’t played competitive basketball in roughly two years.”

Hence the challenge. In a normal season the Gophers would have an extended preseason to get everyone on the same page. This year the process will be accelerated. Still, here are reasons why Whalen is so excited about her team’s chances:

• Athletic ability. This will be a Gophers team with athleticism at all positions. Both Powell and Scalia have come back in great shape, Whalen said. Smith and Hedman — who will both figure strongly in the rotation from the start — add speed and/or length to the mix.

• Depth. Last year Whalen’s rotation usually went no deeper than seven players, and usually six. Not this year. Smith and Strande — who will be limited with an ankle injury as practices commence — add depth in the backcourt. And Whalen is thrilled with her depth in the post — a problem last year for a Gophers team that got beat up by bigger conference teams. She has Sconiers, Hedman, Woodard and Bagwell Katalinich there.

“We have so much size,” Whalen said. “We’ve got bigs that are all 6-0, 6-2, 6-3. Our front line can be really, really big. We have some bigs that are versatile, able to stretch the floor.”

• Versatility. Whalen will be able to go with either a small or big lineup depending on the opponent, a luxury she didn’t have last season. Whalen is not ready to start talking about starting lineups yet. But she could go with a bigger starting lineup that has Powell and Scalila at guard, Sissoko at small forward, Bagwell Katalinich at power forward and Sconiers at center. A smaller starting five would have Sissoko at the four and Hubbard on the wing.

This with a rotation that could go nine deep.

“We’re working daily to mesh it all together,” Whalen said. “There hasn’t been a day when I’ve left work not feeling happy.”

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