Oct. 23, 1999
East Lansing, MI - Experience, depth, focus and commitment - the ingredients MSU coach Karen Langeland hopes will add up to a successful 1999-2000 campaign for the Spartans.
With all but one player returning from last year's 17-14 team that advanced to the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitational Tournament, the Spartans are determined to make a run at another Big Ten title and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
MSU got an early jump on its season and its goal of competing for the Big Ten title with a 10-day exhibition tour of Vancouver, British Columbia in August. The tour set an early tone for the season and has Langeland excited about the growth and potential of her 24th Spartan team.
?I saw a great change in this team from the end of last year and when we took our trip to Vancouver,? she said. ?They came back very focused on the season and being successful. It's not just the seniors either, it's everyone and that says a lot about their determination to have a great year.?
Langeland feels that last season's tournament run and the exhibition tour will give her team the experience it has lacked in the last two seasons.
?The WNIT and the trip to Canada are great assets for us going into the season,? she said. ?Anytime you have postseason experience it's beneficial. But more importantly, the trip gave our players a chance to bond as a team. Following our trip to Vancouver, there is no doubt in my mind that every player on our team is committed to making this an outstanding season.?
Langeland also saw a more mature team over the summer, something she attributes to experience and solid senior leadership.
?We have three seniors (Kristen Rasmussen, Maxann Reese and Whitney Winberg) who won a Big Ten Championship as freshmen and they want to end their careers the same way they started them,? she says. ?Their leadership will play a big factor in determining the character of this team.?
There is no question that senior co-captains Maxann Reese and Kristen Rasmussen, who are two of the top returning players in the Big Ten, will play major roles for MSU this season.
Reese, a First-Team All-Big Ten selection last year, is the second-leading returning scorer in the league after averaging 17.6 points per game as a junior.
?Max is an outstanding player,? Langeland said of the 5-9 guard. ?When she lets the game come to her offensively, she is tough to stop. But more importantly for us, she has taken her game to another level by becoming a good defensive player and rebounder.?
Rasmussen is the leading returning rebounder and shot blocker in the Big Ten. A Second-Team All-Big Ten selection last year, she averaged 15.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. The 6-4 forward has the versatility to post up or hit from long range and she handles the basketball like a guard, a combination that makes her difficult to defend.
?Kristen does so many different things for this basketball team,? Langeland said. ?Her offensive capabilities present a special challenge to our opponents week-in and week-out. She literally could play all five positions on the court if we asked her to.?
Six-three junior Becky Cummings will join Rasmussen down low, giving the Spartans a formidable front line. In her first full season as a starter, Cummings had a breakthrough year in 1998-99 averaging 11.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
?Becky is one of those players who finds a way to get the job done whether it's rebounding, scoring or defense,? Langeland says. ?She has been one of our most consistent players.?
Sophomore Abby Salscheider is another player who will factor into Langeland's plans this season. The 5-11 forward saw action in 30 games as a rookie, averaging 3.0 points and 1.7 boards per game.
?Abby had a great offseason between touring with the Big Ten team and the trip to Vancouver and that will show on the court,? Langeland said. ?She is by far our best athlete and I think she will give us some solid minutes this season.?
Junior Erin Skelly, a 6-5 center, should also see more time this season with improved consistency after averaging 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds a year ago as a reserve.
?Erin has a better understanding of what she needs to do to help our team be successful,? Langeland says. ?She gives us a solid rebounder and with more confidence and aggressiveness, she can be a factor offensively as well.?
Langeland is also excited about the addition of 6-4 rookie center Jennifer Callier out of Indianapolis, who will give the Spartans the size and power they need in the middle.
?Jennifer is someone who will contribute more and more as the season progresses,? Langeland said. ?She gives us more physical size inside which is an area that we needed to improve on.?
Senior Whitney Winberg, who has been plagued by knee problems her entire career, will again see limited time in the post.
?Whit is basically in the same situation she was in last year,? Langeland says. ?But what she brings to this team in terms of wisdom, leadership and experience is invaluable.?
MSU's depth will be bolstered by the return of junior forward Nikki Davis, who missed all but seven games last year after suffering a knee injury. Davis, who will provide the Spartans with some much-needed scoring off the bench, had reconstructive surgery in January to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and returned to the court in August during the trip to Vancouver.
?It's going to take Nikki a while to get back into the flow of the game because she missed almost an entire season,? Langeland said. ?She gives us some flexibility in terms of position because of her ability to play the three or the two.?
Rounding out the front-line players are sophomores Jill Blazek and Kelly Czubak. Blazek appeared in 16 games as a rookie and with continued improvement could garner increased minutes this year.
?Jill is playing with a lot more intensity and aggressiveness,? Langeland says. ?She has worked hard on scoring in the post and she could become a factor for us as she gains more confidence.?
The one area of uncertainty for Langeland and the Spartans this season is the point guard position. Langeland will take a hard look at three players and feels the competition for the starting job will make the team better.
Redshirt freshman Vnemina Reese started the first six games of the year last season, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended her 1998-99 campaign. Reese was averaging 5.7 points and 2.7 assists per game prior to the injury.
?How Mina recovers from the knee injury remains to be seen,? Langeland said. ?The exhibition tour was extremely valuable to her because it allowed her to play in a competitive situation. If she can use the Vancouver trip and the preseason to get back to where she was prior to the injury, it will help our team. It would be asking a lot to expect more than that because she missed so much valuable time as a freshman.?
Junior Donita Johnson moved from her natural two position to the point in Reese's absence last year and performed well, averaging 4.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Langeland would prefer to keep Johnson at the off-guard, but won't hesitate to have her run the team if necessary.
?Donita gives us a lot of flexibility because she has the ability to play three positions,? Langeland said. ?She is our best defender and is a solid rebounder for her size. The biggest improvement in her game is that she is learning how to use her strengths to her advantage.?
Junior Christie Pung is another player with experience at the point who will battle for the starting nod. Pung played in all but one game last year and contributed 3.8 points and 2.0 assists per game.
?Christie got a tremendous amount of valuable playing experience last year,? Langeland says. ?She worked very hard on her game over the summer and we hope it translates into more productivity.
?The point guard position will be a good competitive battle,? Langeland added. ?Whatever comes out of it will be what's best for the team. The bottom line is we have great depth at the position and that only makes us a better team.?
Freshman Maria Recker, a 5-10 guard out of Auburn, Ind., will give the Spartans another outside shooting threat.
?Maria is a very intelligent player who will help us extend the defense with her outside shooting abilities.?
MSU's experience and depth will be a key factor in navigating a tough, but balanced schedule in 1999-2000. The Spartans have several key non-conference battles that should prepare them well for the rigors of Big Ten play.
Overall, the schedule features eight teams that made postseason appearances last year and at least four programs that are among many publications' preseason top 25.
?The bottom line is you have to win your non-conference games,? Langeland said. ?That is one of the biggest factors in determining NCAA Tournament teams and we have to do a better job of putting ourselves in a good position at the end of the non-conference schedule.?
The Spartans open the year against Appalachian State in the annual Felpausch/MSU Classic (Nov. 19-20) at the Breslin Center. The tournament also features traditional power Alabama along with St. John's.
Once again, the month of December will see the Spartans with a busy road schedule. MSU has just two home games in the month and road contests against Butler (Dec. 5), Central Michigan (Dec. 8), Notre Dame (Dec. 11), North Carolina (Dec. 19) and Ohio (Dec. 21) before opening the Big Ten season against Michigan (Dec. 30).
The conference race should be interesting this season with several schools returning experienced squads. Langeland picks Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan State to be among the teams to vie for the Big Ten Championship.
?Purdue has been the obvious choice to win the league the last couple of years,? Langeland said. ?I think this season it will be more wide open. This could be one of the most competitive races in a long time.
?If we play consistent and up to our capabilities on a daily basis, this team will go very far,? Langeland said. ?I believe this team has the focus and commitment to control its own destiny and not leave anything to chance.?