October 2, 1998
East Lansing, Mich. - In athletics, the motivation to succeed can come in many forms. There is self-motivation, the motivation of a coach and the motivation to overcome past struggles.
The latter is the driving force for the 1998-99 Spartan basketball team. After capturing its first-ever Big Ten title in 1996-97, Michigan State struggled through an 11-16 campaign last year with a young and inexperienced squad. It was an experience that head coach Karen Langeland hopes will help motivate this years team.
"Last year was frustrating for everyone involved," Langeland says. "We didnt reach our potential as a team, but when you go through a season such as we did, your players have a tendency to work harder in the offseason.
"Its going to take hard work, commitment and desire on everyones part," Langeland added. "Nothing ever comes easy and we have to be willing to work harder than everyone else in the country to improve."
In addition to hard work, Langeland feels that more depth and experience will be keys to MSUs success this season.
"We really only had 11 players last year, five of whom were freshmen," she said. "We have a lot more depth this season, we are more experienced and we have some talented freshmen who will allow us to play some key people in their natural positions."
The players who will benefit the most from the position changes are juniors Maxann Reese and Kristen Rasmussen. Although they each had individual success in 1997-98, Langeland expects them to shine in their natural positions.
Reese, who started most of last year at the point, will move back to the off-guard where her tremendous scoring abilities can better be utilized.
"Max is a scorer and she needs to be put in a situation where she can do exactly that," Langeland said. "She will create a lot of matchup problems because of her quickness and her ability to take the ball to hole, take a hit, and finish the play."
An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 1997-98, Reese averaged 11.7 points per game for the Spartans. A two-time Big Ten Player of the Week honoree, she poured in a career-high 32 points against Central Michigan and topped the 20-point mark five times. A shooter with exceptional range, Reese ranked among the Big Ten leaders with 52 three-pointers while shooting 37 percent from behind the arc.
Langeland will also look to Reese for more leadership this season as well as more consistent play.
"Max has to accept her leadership responsibilities, because this team responds to her," Langeland said. "She needs to be a constant force for us to be successful. Max needs to be our go-to player and I think it is a role she will relish."
Langeland also hopes to better utilize the skills of Rasmussen, who will move back to a forward position. The 6-4 honorable mention All-Big Ten selection averaged a career-high 11.9 points per game and was fourth in the Big Ten with an 8.0 rebounds per game average last season.
"We feel that moving Kristen back to the four position will take some of the burden off her physically and create some difficult matchup problems for our opponents," Langeland says.
Rasmussen, who broke her own MSU seasonal record with 45 blocks last season, will also be a key player for the Spartans on the break.
"Kristen runs the floor as well as any big player in the country and there is no question she has a lot of offensive ability," Langeland said. "She can shoot the three, take the ball to the hole and she can face up and score. She really hit the weights hard over the summer and that will help her be able to take a hit down low and finish."
To create the scoring opportunities for Reese and Rasmussen, Langeland is ready to hand over the starting point guard duties to freshman Vnemina Reese, an AAU All-American out of Fort Wayne, Ind.
"Mina is a true point guard," Langeland says. "She is always seeking to make everyone around her look better. Shes very smart, has excellent knowledge of the game, sees the floor well and distributes the ball to her teammates in a position to score."
Langeland, who has rarely started a true freshman at the point in her 22 years at Michigan State, is confident Reese can handle the pressure that comes with one of the most important positions on the court.
"We feel Mina can handle the point and the pressure that comes with it," Langeland said. "We also understand that there is going to be a bit of a learning process. It will take some time, but we have so much confidence in her ability and her leadership skills that it will come."
MSU will also benefit from the experience of sophomore Christie Pung at the point. Pung gained valuable experience last season, playing in 21 games including four starts early in the year. She averaged 2.5 points and 1.8 assists per game as a rookie.
"I look for Christie to make some great strides and improvement now that she knows what the level of competition is and what she has to do as a player," Langeland said. "She is a good shooter and we need her to learn when to shoot and how to create scoring opportunities for herself."
Sophomore Donita Johnson is another player who will provide depth at the guard position. Johnson played in 22 games as a rookie, including two starts, averaging 1.2 points per game.
"Donita is probably our best perimeter rebounder and she has to use that to her advantage," Langeland said. "We need her to produce more offensively and she can do that by realizing her limits and taking advantage of the things she does well."
Freshman Kelly Czubak, an all-state selection from Lansing Catholic Central High, is a six-footer who can play at guard or forward.
"Kellys greatest asset is her versatility," Langeland says. "She comes from a very respected high school program and really came into her own as a senior."
In addition to Rasmussen at forward, Langeland has a wide range of players to call upon.
Pernille Dalgaard, the only senior on the squad, is the most experienced player after starting 15 games last year. Dalgaard, who averaged a career-high 7.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game last season, will also be counted on for her leadership in 1998-99.
"Pernille showed last year that she was best when she came off the bench," Langeland said. "If she can be a consistent sixth player for us, she will play a key role in helping us get back to the NCAA Tournament."
Sophomore Becky Cummings showed tremendous potential as a rookie and is expected to have an expanded role this season. The 6-3 forward, who played with the Big Ten tour team over the summer, started the final five games of last year and ended the campaign averaging 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
"Becky got some valuable playing experience last year," Langeland said. "She is willing to take the physical contact that you have in the Big Ten. This year we are looking for Becky to do a little more scoring in addition to her rebounding."
Sophomore Nikki Davis will vie for playing time at a forward this season. The 5-9 swing player appeared in 20 games last season, averaging 3.5 points per game.
"There is no question about Nikkis scoring ability," Langeland says. "In fact, she is probably one of our better scorers. If she can continue to make good decisions offensively and improve her defense, she will see a lot of playing time."
Abby Salscheider, who played on the same AAU team (Lady Legit) as Vnemina Reese, is a freshman who is expected to work her way into the playing group. The 5-11 native of Bluffton, Ind., closed out her prep career ranked 17th on Indianas all-time scoring list with 1,917 points.
"Abby is a scorer, who is a very quick and athletic player," Langeland says. "She is an excellent rebounder and free throw shooter and she loves to go to the basket -- something we really need."
Freshman Jill Blazek, a 6-2 native of Albuquerque, N.M., gives the Spartans added depth at the forward position. A USA Today All-USA honorable mention selection, she guided Rio Grande High to a state championship as a senior.
"Jill knows what it takes to win," Langeland says. "She runs the floor very well and has good moves down on the block. She will give us a great push off the bench with her ability to run the floor and her ability to finish on the end of the break."
One of the critical positions for the Spartans this season is at center. With Rasmussen moving to a forward, Langeland will look to Erin Skelly in the middle. The 6-5 sophomore started four games last season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.6 rebounds per game.
"Erin may well be our most improved player since last year, primarily because she spent so much time in the weight room," Langeland said. "She is physically and mentally ready to take her game to another level. Erin has good athletic ability, runs the floor well and make moves offensively based on what the defense is doing to her."
Junior center Whitney Winberg could also play a big role this season if she can overcome the knee injuries that have plagued her in her first two seasons. Winberg, who underwent offseason surgery on her ailing knee, was limited to just 17 games a year ago.
"Whitneys biggest challenge is to get healthy," Langeland said. "She has the skills to play in the Big Ten and help us get to the next level, but we need to get her on the court. Whit has great post moves and two years ago, was probably our best defensive post player."
A more balanced playing schedule will also benefit the Spartans this season. While MSU will face 10 teams that advanced to postseason play last year, it will not encounter the same type of road schedule that saw the Spartans play nine-straight games away from the Breslin Center a year ago.
"Our schedule couldnt get any worse than what it was last year," Langeland admits. "We have better balance home and away. Its always a lot more comforting for a younger team when they can play at home."
MSU will open the campaign at the Breslin Center with games against Butler (Nov. 13) and Central Michigan (Nov. 15) before taking on Boston College in the Reebok Classic in Boston (Nov. 22).
The Spartans close out the month of November with a trip to Dallas and the Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl Classic (Nov. 27-28) where they will take on SMU in the opening round and either Arkansas State or Texas A&M in their second game of the tourney.
The Spartans will play three of their final five non-conference games at the Breslin Center beginning with a Dec. 1 matchup against Detroit. MSU will face Illinois State on the road (Dec. 5) before returning home to take on Ohio (Dec. 9). MSU then takes on Southern Illinois on the road (Dec.12) prior closing out the non-conference season with a tough game against Notre Dame (Nov. 21).
MSU opens the competitive Big Ten season at home against an improved Ohio State squad on Dec. 30. Langeland expects the 1998-99 conference race to be as tough as ever with Purude, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, Illinois and MSU to be among the elite teams.
"We are going to surprise people this year," Langeland said. "We were not happy at all with our lack of success last year and that is a powerful motivating factor for this team. We have to make some improvement, but we feel we can be in the top half of the Big Ten."