The history of the Florida Lady Gators can be neatly divided into two eras -- before Coach Carol Ross arrived, and after. Prior to Coach Ross's arrival in 1990, Florida was a perennial doormat in the SEC, finishing in the top half of the conference only once with no appearances in the NCAA tournament. Since 1993, the Lady Gators have only missed the NCAA tournament once -- in 2000 when they were the featured bubble team on Selection Sunday, only to have their intense disappointment displayed on national television when their name wasn't called.
Last season, the Lady Gators struck back with a vengeance, finishing in a tie for second place in the SEC with an 11-3 conference record. Despite the loss of two key players from last year -- guard Tombi Bell and center Tamara Stocks -- with reasonable luck, the Lady Gators are likely to maintain their position in the top half of the SEC and return once again to the NCAA tournament.
Players returning: Florida returns three starters: senior guard Brandi McCain (19.7 ppg), forward Naomi Mobley (10.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg), and forward Monique Cardenas (8.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Junior guard Sherisha Hills, who was a key reserve until tearing her ACL in January and massive 6-5 sophomore center Vanessa Hayden (10.4 ppg, 9.2 rbg) will likely stop into starting positions -- provided that Hayden's conditioning has improved sufficiently to allow her to play more than 18 minutes per game. The bench is a bigger question mark, with 2 returning guards with limited playing time last year, 2 others who sat at last year with torn ACLs. The Lady Gator's post depth was hurt by the transfer of 6'4 sophomore center Jameelah Trimble at the end of last season. As a result, the effectiveness of the bench will likely depend on Florida's newcomes.
Incoming Players: Coach Ross has shored up her depth in the post by bringing in a pair of junior college transfers from Miami-Dade Community College. 5-10 Courtney Cooper (18.6 ppg, 14.4 rpg, 4.6 spg) was the national junior college leading rebounder last year and was named as a first-team Kodak Junior College All-American. She's joined by 6-2 teammate Trisha Patterson (13.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg), who shot 46% from the field. Florida was one of the best rebounding teams in the country this year, and Coach Ross believes that the transfers will help to continue that tradition. Two freshmen will join the Lady Gators -- 5-6 point guard Tishona Gregory (12 ppg, 6 apg, 4 spg, 60% fg) rated the #37 recruit in the country by Bluestar, and 6-0 forward Tamia Williams (18 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 apg, 3 spg, 2 bpg), rated #22 by All-Star Girls Report. In addition, 5-10 guard Tara Taylor and 5-7 guard Kelly Stevenson, who sat out last season with torn ACLs, will be available.
Outlook: Despite the loss of Bell and Stocks, the Lady Gators return a balanced group of experienced players from last year's successful team. The three returning starters -- Brandi McCain, Monique Cardenas, and Naomi Mobley - can be expected to pick up right where they left off. Sherisha Hills, a transfer for Notre Dame, was a key reserve at guard before her injury in January and should be able to step right into Bell's shoes. Vanessa Hayden is a massive presence in the low post, nearly averaging a double-double last year while playing an average of only 18 minutes per game. With a year's experience behind her, she'll likely be ready to move into a starting role. In short, the Lady Gators are likely to have one of the best starting five in the SEC. However, the bench will be relatively inexperienced, heavily relying on newcomers. Still, if the Lady Gators avoid last year's rash of injuries, they should be able to maintain their position as one of the top five teams in the SEC and once again return to the Big Dance in March.