CHRONICLE: Four stories I’m following this Lady Raiders basketball season
MURFRESBORO, Tenn. — After two exhibition wins, the Lady Raiders begin their 2022-23 campaign tomorrow night in Macon, Ga., taking on defending Southern Conference Tournament champion Mercer Bears at 6:00 p.m. CT with coverage televised on ESPN+ and radio coverage on WGNS 101.9 FM / 2:50 p.m., Smyrna – WGNS 100.5 FM – The Varsity Network app.
As expected, given the caliber of opposition, MTSU took care of business against Christian Brothers and UT Southern in their first action on the schedule. But that left plenty for Lady Raider fans to follow in the weeks and months to come for a team that the head coach Rick Insell thinks he has a potential “Sweet 16” if all goes well.
With that in mind, here are four topics I’m watching closely as the season wraps up tomorrow night.
1) The Lady Raiders will be tested early in non-conference play. Can the veterans of the team maintain the same winning culture early on?
We’ll start with what MTSU has back from last year’s WNIT semifinal team, which is almost everyone. Whereas Dor Sarre shall be substituted for the playmaker, and by Amanda Whittington valuable presence on the bench too, much of what made the Lady Raiders dynamic last season is set to depart in 2022.
by Courtney Whitson two-tier scoring ability and leadership. Jalynn Gregory’s absurd range beyond the arc. by Alexis Whittington perimeter defense and three-point shooting. Anastasia Boldyreva touching around the basket. The reverse game of Ksenyia Malashka at 4 or 5. by Courtney Blakely energy in defense and dynamism with the ball in his hands.
These six returnees, plus the transfer of Marshall Savanna rollerto put on makeup Rick Insell“seven starters” at the start of the season. Lady Raider fans know what to expect from each of them at this point, although they were treated to some interesting new wrinkles from last year’s shows, like Gregory running to point guard, a role that ‘She last played regularly in high school, where Malashka and Boldyreva shared the court at the same time, a rarity last season.
Given last season’s success, it will be essential to keep the culture strong through tough road games in Mercer, Southern Illinois and Memphis, not to mention home games against Louisville, Houston and Belmont, before the game against C-USA. But aside from an injury that kept Blakely out of the first show, things seem to have picked up where they left off last March.
2) Another year, another elite point guard transferred to Murfreesboro. Box Savanna roller pick up where it left off in C-USA, just blue instead of green?
The feeling of relief Savanna roller felt stepping onto the field for the first time as a Lady Raider, rather than a visiting Marshall, was evident immediately after scoring 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting against Christian Brothers.
“It was amazing,” Wheeler said after the game. “I had chills last night just thinking about tonight.”
MTSU fans will certainly be pleased that Wheeler is playing for the Lady Raiders rather than their opponent this season. In just two exhibitions, Wheeler averaged 19.0 points and shot 13 of 20 from the field (65%), making all nine of his free throws. She was perfect for that of Rick Inselldisplaying the ball handling, driving ability and outside shooting that made her an All-C-USA player last season at Huntington.
Keeping her acclimated will be key to this team’s long-term success, as she’s as close to being an individual replacement for Dor Sarre as the Lady Raiders might have hoped to find in the transfer portal this offseason. Early results indicate great long-term success, Wheeler comes in with two years of eligibility. And Insell is already raving about his skills rubbing off on the team.
“We are very talented,” Insell said. “We have a lot of basketball IQ. Savannah’s arrival has helped with our basketball IQ.”
3) The class of freshmen shone in both exhibitions. How will they fit into the team chemistry this year?
Lady Raider fans got their first glimpse of the team’s three freshmen (Ta’Mia Scott, Lanae Riley and Mason Meioshe) in both team shows, and while it will be hard to top what last year’s class did, with Gregory and Boldyreva making the C-USA All-Freshman team, the first signs are that Rick InsellStaff have found other players who can contribute immediately.
Scott, who should see immediate minutes on the wing for MTSU, had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds against UT Southern, while Riley, who will likely see plenty of time up front for MTSU, showed a great touch from beyond the arc in both games, shooting 4-5 from three. Mason, who played more sporadically than his two classmates, also had good production, grabbing seven boards in just 11 minutes on the court in both exhibitions.
“We knew how good they were when we signed them,” Insell said. “Lanae, if she’s not the best, I thought she was the best in the state of Ohio. And Ta’Mia, I thought she was the best in the state of Tennessee the last year, and we were very lucky to be able to have them.”
Minutes, as always, will be hard earned with this group. But it’s easy to see the potential in all three and why they were brought to Murfreesboro. How they develop will be key in determining this team’s cap as the year progresses.
One thing is certain though: these three already understand the standard set by their teammates.
“In high school, we had high expectations there, so I think it’s not a big difference,” Riley said of the difference between high school and prom. “The biggest difference is that I have to play to everyone’s standards and play to my standards to be the best player I can be for this team.”
4) The first signs indicate the depth at each position. Will he remain so throughout the season?
Undoubtedly the most intriguing storyline of this season for me is how deep this team can go on their bench with consistency this year. Last season, covering men’s and women’s basketball in the Glass House was great fun to cover for a wide variety of reasons (not losing a regular season home game for both teams certainly helped!), but what was most interesting was the contrasting styles that each team played.
Nick McDevitt’s program made full use of his bench, pressing much of the game for that very reason, while Rick InsellThe program kept its bench usually at seven, sometimes even six players in crucial moments, which resulted in an efficient pace but more methodical by necessity. In 2022-23, I don’t think that will be the case for the Lady Raiders, with Insell already planning to play up to ten players Monday night in Macon.
“What helps us more than anything is that we can play a lot of people,” Insell said. “While before I had six or seven young girls, now I’m playing, and hopefully I can do it on Monday night, 10 or 11.”
Fans saw much of that depth displayed over the two exhibitions, but also new schematic wrinkles, like a more present press that the team ran for most of the first half against UT Southern. Already a good defensive team, I’m excited to see what continued player development looks like Jada Grannum and freshmen mean for some of the defenses MTSU will be able to run this season. I can’t wait to see him play.
“Just not being able to rely on a select few, but having a deep bench is meaningful for everyone,” Grannum said. “It’s great for us, we’re having fun.”