The Mountaineers, 21-11 last season and ranked in the top 25 of nearly every magazine and internet poll released, return a school-record seven seniors, including All-American and all-Big East selection Meg Bulger, and all five starters. And with its recent runs in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, where it went to the finals and the second round, respectively, before being rallied past in the latter by LSU, that stat line is one that could make any coach giddy. Carey, in his seventh season, knows, however, that there isn't anyone behind center Yinka Sanni and power forward Chakhia Cole who can come close to replacing their talent.
Sanni and Cole started all 32 games, the lone players to do so besides LaQuita Owens. Sanni averaged 14 points per game and actually elevated that area toward the latter portions of the season, pouring in 16 per game in Big East play. She also tallied seven rebounds per game, but fouled out four times and, because of her penchant for the bad foul, was limited to an average of just 27.4 minutes per game, likely at least seven fewer than that which Carey would have liked her to play. Cole was the team's third-leading scorer at 11.9 points per game while playing more than 36 minutes within the league outings.
Behind them, WVU offers 6-2 Ranisha White, who can match Sanni's height but not her power play or strength inside. White, a senior who appeared in 22 games last season, excels when facing the basket and is better able to take defenders off the dribble and hit from short range. The other center is Marie Malone, a freshman with excellent strength who is obviously lacking in experience. To counter that, and maximize usage of the quality depth it possesses, Carey will use Bulger and, perhaps, Lateefah Joye – a 5-11 forward out of Brooklyn who has played at both Okaloosa-Walton Community College and Alabama – at the power forward spot. Cole could also play the five, though all moves will depend upon match-ups.
"Make no doubt about it, we need Sanni and Cole in there," Carey said. "Even though we feel we have people we can put in those positions, they are still not the quality that those two are. We have got to do a better job of getting back-ups in those positions. What's nice is that we have three or four girls that can play more than one position."
"This is the first time that I have been here that we have had all those options. We have people who can score at about every position. That will make us a better team. They can't overload their defense to one side or another or on any one player, outside or inside. They will have to play us pretty straight up. ... I want to see (Sanni) be a little smarter defensively and not pick up the fouls that she did. And throwing the ball outside out of the double-team and the turnovers. Those are areas where she really needs to take the next step. Be smart. We need you in the game."
The most intriguing preseason battle is likely between Bulger, Joye and Sparkle Davis for the small forward spot. All three shoot well, and, though Bulger's mobility is continuing to improve after her second knee injury in as many years, it still is not at 100 percent. How the fifth-year senior responds over the next two weeks of practice will determine how much she plays. If the knee and cutting ability do not return to near what they were, Joye and Davis could seem better options, especially within Carey's man defense.
"Carey makes sure we know our roles, both in the game and practice," said Davis, a transfer from Auburn who started the final 26 contests last season after sitting out the 2005-06 season. "Whatever that will be, I will serve the team however I can. I never really had any real desire to start. I just want to help how I can. I don't worry about it, but it will be battle for that position. It won't be a losing battle, though, whoever wins. Whatever I can do to help the team. What works, works."
Joye excelled in West Virginia's preseason trip to Australia. The slasher further developed an already solid jump shot and showcased the ability to drive past other players while also creating enough scoring to warrant additional minutes. She played in 28 of 32 games last season and hit double digits in all but two appearances. She was named the squad's sixth woman. That three-way competition will likely establish the final starter, at least for the initial games of the regular season. For the Nov. 9 opener against Canisius, the likely starters will be Sanni, Cole, Bulger, Owens and point guard Ashley Powell. That leaves Davis, Joye, White and backup point guard Kendra Goodley to come off the bench. WVU has another guard, Virginia transfer Takisha Granberry, who must sit out this season.
"The depth is more on the front end than underneath," Carey said. "Because of that we can extend a lot more and give people a breath. Somebody going out and somebody going in, we will not lose as much as we had in the past. … We try to keep it simple, though. Hit the open man, and if we have an option, go to our (best) scorer. And I think you will see us change up a bit. The main defense will be man, but we will stay in that 1-3-1 more. The other thing is rotating a lot of people all of a sudden. Do they buy in to the concept and all that?"
Note: Carey commented on Bulger's continued improvement: "I always kid Meg that she never played defense anyway, so what's the difference," Carey said. "I will tell you what. The last two or three days of practice she has really been moving a lot better laterally and defensively and all that other stuff. I think eventually it will come. Is it where it was? No. But I think eventually it will be. My philosophy right now with Meg is that now is the time to see if you can play or not, if you're ready to go or not. I am really not being easy on Meg in practice right now. I am treating her like any other player that doesn't have an injury. We expect the same things out of her that we do everybody else. The last two or three days I have seen her make strides in those areas."