Women's Hoops Preview

University of Miami women's basketball coach Fern Labati can talk with the best of them. Just take the Hurricanes media day for example. Labati's voice raced with excitement as she talked about her basketball team before a staffer let her know time was up.

"I could stay up here and talk about these girls all day," Labati said before stepping down from the podium.

Who knows? Labati might be even more difficult to quiet down several months from now.

Four returning starters and several talented newcomers could pull the Hurricanes from the bottom and right into contention for elite status in the Big East Conference. The Hurricanes are coming off a 13-15 season in which they finished eighth in the league with a 6-10 mark.

Miami will have to contend with five conference teams that participated in the NCAA Tournament a year ago including eventual national champion Notre Dame in order to make that jump. The Big East has claimed the national championship the last two seasons.

One of the key players expected to help the Hurricanes reach new heights is sophomore center Chanivia Broussard. Broussard, a Miami Northwestern standout, anchored the Hurricanes offense last season with a team-leading 13.2 points per game and was second in rebounding (5.4). Broussard spent a majority of the time last season playing around the basket, but has spent the summer improved her shooting and ball-handling skills.

There is plenty riding on the continued development of the All-Big East Rookie Team member.

"We think she'll have a great year, she's been working so hard," Labati said. "Chanivia has an improved shot and her range is much better. We expect big things out of her."

Broussard also led the team with 32 blocks and ranked sixth in the Big East with a .429 shooting percentage.

Broussard will be spelled by sophomore Shaquana Wilkins, who according to Labati will get a lot of quality playing time this year. Wilkins has increased her strength and gives the Hurricanes another inside presence. Wilkins averaged 3.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in 26 games as a freshman and could emerge as a solid option of the bench. Freshman Yalonda McCormick, out if Monsignor Pace High, has turned heads since arriving over the summer and has been handed the point guard duties. Labati speaks volumes of the 5-8 McCormick and vows to see tremendous improvement in her game as the season moves along. That might not be necessary.

McCormick averaged 21.5 points, 10.5 assists, 10.1 steals and 8.0 rebounds per game as a high school senior. She led Pace to a 26-2 record and came to the Hurricanes as the fifth-ranked point guard in the nation by All-Star Girls Report. "Yalonda is really ahead of her years. She have a great presence of mind on the court," Labati said. Senior Sheila James, slowed by a hairline fracture in her right leg, will slide to shooting guard as a result of McCormick's rapid impact. James played in 25 games last season, averaging 10.4 points and shot 33.3 percent from three-point range. James finished the season with 43 three-pointers.

James is experienced and enjoys the up-tempo pace the Hurricanes will play this year. But staying on the court has been a problem throughout her entire career. Last year, James missed the rest of the season after suffering an injury against Syracuse.As a sophomore, she was sidelined for close to a month with a broken hand.

As if the Hurricanes backcourt wasn't impressive enough it could end up even better. Redshirt freshman Yolanda Whigham, expected to make an immediate impact on the team, is slated to return in December after tearing an ACL in a pick-up game this summer. Before the injury, Whigham averaged 9.5 points and 2.3 in six games with a Big East touring team.

Junior guard Amanda Papuga suffered a serious hamstring injury and isn't expected back until December.

At the small forward position, the Hurricanes welcome back Meghan Saake, the only player to start 27 games last season and average more than 30 minutes. Saake, a strong athletic player who can run the floor and play solid defense, averaged 6.6 points and 4.5 rebounds a contest last year. Saake led the Big East with 2.74 steals a game.

Saake will be pushed to the brink by freshman Melissa Knight, one of the top high school players in the Philadephia area. Knight, was highly-recruited and will be an important part of the Hurricanes bench rotation.

"Meghan is without question our top defensive player. She just comes to play everyday and you really don't have to tell her much. We're going to try to get her closer to the basket this season."

The Hurricanes, who won the conference title in 1991-92 with a perfect 18-0 record, hasn't finished higher than fifth in the Big East since 1998. They have won just 13 of 32 league games the past two seasons.

With an outstanding non-conference, as well as Big East meetings against Notre dame and Connecticut, the Hurricanes will be challenged in post any amount of victories. The Hurricanes open the regular-season against Iona before traveling to Kentucky on Dec. 1.

Additionally, the Hurricanes will play the University of Texas at the American Airlines Arena, Dec. 9 as part of the Orange Bowl Classic. The Hurricanes will also play host to the Gatorade Holiday Classic (Dec. 27-28) which will include Yale, Bowling Green and Lehigh.

"The way it is Connecticut and Notre Dame are at the top of the Big East and we're in the little group of teams that could make that jump this year," Labati said. "Hopefully, that jump also means making the NCAA Tournament. We are capable of moving up the ladder in our conference".

"All our players will have to step up to make up for the injuries, but we have a lot of talented players that can make that happen. If we can improve our rebounding and hang with teams inside we could be a factor. I'm looking forward to it."

Canes Time Top Stories