LSU women’s basketball coach Van Chancellor knew going in that the second year of his tenure at LSU would be much different than his first year at the helm.
After all, Chancellor inherited a senior laden team – led by All-America center Sylvia Fowles – that had been to three straight Final Fours. The Lady Tigers made it four in a row in Chancellor’s first season, but when they came up short in their quest for an NCAA title, he knew the run had likely ended.
Entering the 2008-09 campaign, Chancellor had to replace all five starters from the previous year, and he would have to rely on six true freshmen to help replace the departed seniors.
The Lady Tigers (19-11) may not have made it five final fours in a row, but they earned respect from everyone around the league for finishing second in the final Southeastern Conference standings and earning an 11th straight NCAA Tournament bid.
“We’re pumped up about the season,” Chancellor said at Wednesday’s Media Day. “We were very young last season. We’re still pretty young. We have 14 players and seven of them are freshmen or sophomores, so that still makes us a young basketball team.
“But we work hard, and we’ve had one of the best fall (workouts) I’ve ever been around. We have a team that has a great attitude. They’re working towards their goals and aspirations, and when you have a team that’s fun to coach, it’s a joy just to be around them.”
Playing all of those youngsters should pay off for Chancellor and LSU in 2009-10 as the third-year coach returns four starters from a year ago paced by senior shooting guard Allison Hightower.
Hightower – a pre-season first team All-America selection by the Sporting News – was a Coaches’ First Team SEC selection last season after leading LSU in six categories. Her 14.9 points a game led the Lady Tigers, as well as her 3.0 assists, 1.9 blocks, 1.9 steals, 35 minutes a game, and 45.7 percent shooting from the floor.
Chancellor will be looking for a similar effort from the Arlington, Texas native on and off the court in her final go round as she looks to lead LSU back to the Final Four.
“She has had an outstanding fall and been our hardest worker in the weight room,” Chancellor said. “When your best player is your hardest worker it gives you a chance to win.
“Allison Hightower has really stepped up in leadership; in vocal leadership,” added Chancellor. “She’s done a wonderful job of leading them off the court.”
Hightower will have plenty of help as three other starters – 5-foot-11 guard Katherine Graham, 5-foot-8 guard Latear Eason and 6-foot-2 center LaSondra Barrett – all return to give Chancellor one of the most experienced teams in the conference. That combined with several more ladies who received valuable minutes last season, and LSU is far from being a one-woman show.
“At this point in time, I think our strength will be that if you take out Hightower, I think there’s about eight or nine more players that are pretty even,” Chancellor said.
The Sporting News tabbed the Lady Tigers No. 9 in the country in its pre-season poll and those expectations are due in large part to the way they finished last season. LSU won seven of their last nine contests and had a four-game stretch in mid February that included victories over Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Some have even tabbed LSU as the favorite to win the SEC despite a Tennessee team that returns all five starters from a year ago.
“If you asked me where you think we’re going to go this year, here’s my own personal opinion: In the league, we’re one of four or five teams at the top,” said Chancellor. “There’s Tennessee, us, Georgia, Mississippi State, and I look for South Carolina to be the most improved team in the league. With that in mind, I think we will be in that mix.”
Will that be enough to lead LSU to San Antonio – the site of the 2010 Final Four?
The first test will be on Nov. 15 when the Lady Tigers face Centenary and that is a day that Chancellor is anxiously looking forward to.