Injury Woes

The West Virginia women's basketball team has been hampered by injuries throughout the tenure of head coach Mike Carey, but he's hoping that the long run of missed games has finally come to an end.

Despite rebuilding the program from the depths of a five-win season to the heights of an NCAA bid and a run to the NIT championship game the past two years, Carey has found one hurdle he hasn't been able to overcome. Of course, no other coach in the country could do so either, because injuries are one of those random factors that even the most meticulous planner can't account for.

Magnifying the problem is the fact that the major injuries have been clustered at the center position, leaving the Mountaineers shorthanded against the big front lines prevalent in the Big East. Ramika McGee and Yelena Leuchanka, both of who came to WVU as highly-touted players, have each suffered two knee injuries that caused them to miss substantial parts of their careers. And without them, West Virginia's inside game suffered. Carey notes that in addition to the lost production from the center spot, WVU was also affected by having to shuffle players around to fill the void.

"It's really hurt us, and it's really hurt our bench play also, because we have had to bring people in to start that would have been great role players coming off the bench," Carey explained. "Hopefully, that's over. The last three years we have had several season-ending injuries, and we can move on now."

McGee has now exhausted her eligibility, but Carey thinks that Leuchanka is poised for a solid return.

"I think Yelena will come back 100%, and I hope she can get through the year, not only for the team but for her. She hasn't played a whole lot of basketball for two years now. I think our post play next year is going to be stronger than it's ever been since I've been at West Virginia."

Carey isn't putting all of his eggs into one basket on that front, however. In addition to Leuchanka, the intense coach will also welcome junior college All-American Tameka Kelly, a 6-1 forward from Pensacola, Fla., this fall. Kelly averaged 16.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, and will be counted on to provide immediate help up front.

While Carey hopes to have more inside punch with the combination of Leuchanka, Kelly and Yinka Sanni, who stepped in as a true freshman to perform very well in the paint, he knows that the pressure will be on at those spots. For WVU, a guard and perimeter oriented team in the past couple of years, lost the heart of that attack when point guard Yolanda Paige and shooting guard Sherell Sowho graduated. Their departures mean that WVU will have to lean on its centers and forwards while the inexperienced guards learn on the job.

"We will absolutely look different next year," Carey said. "We will change up a little bit offensively and even defensively. I'm a man-to-man person, but we're going to look at playing some zone next year and change up some on our zone looks. We'll still play some man, but because of the inexperience we have at the guard position, we're going to have to make some changes on both ends."

Of course, Carey has an ace in the hole in the form of junior Meg Bulger, who can play any spot on the floor. The first team all-Big East selection could help steady the backcourt, but could also provide assistance on the front line if things break down there again. Bulger is probably best playing the two or the three, but her all-around versatility makes her a threat at any position on the court.

"Meg just wants to win," Carey said of his star performer. "She can play from the point guard to the center, and it doesn't matter to her where she plays so long as it helps the team. She is very unselfish."

With this year's recruiting class signed and sealed, Carey will be watching players for next year's class over the summer. He would definitely like to add another center, and another big forward isn't out of the question either.

"We were not in permitted to watch the tournament that took place in Morgantown earlier this year, because it was not in one of the permitted recruiting periods," Carey explained. "There were 80 teams here, though, that got an opportunity to see our campus. I'm excited there were 80 women's teams that wanted to see West Virginia and came here to play. There's another AAU tournament in July that we will be able to watch, and we will all be there for that one."

Carey has faced some challenges in recruiting, especially in the form of AAU coaches, who he believes can sometimes do more harm than good.

"I like the rule that we have that we aren't allowed to talk to the AAU coaches during the evaluation period in July. I think the NCAA is looking at ways to get the AAU coaches out of the recruiting process altogether, and I agree with that. Eliminate that, you don't have all the deals going on. It's not fair how they (AAU coaches) go about it, because they can control a kid. I think it should be the high school coach and the Mom and Dad that's involved in making the decision."

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