Last season, the Mountaineer women's basketball program entered the season with big expectations for the Big East and beyond. Armed with an arsenal of seasoned veterans, West Virginia spent a healthy portion of the season ranked in the top 25 en route to another banner year under head coach Mike Carey which concluded with a second consecutive trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
This season? Not so much. West Virginia's roster endured an extreme makeover of the highest order in the offseason, waving goodbye to longtime stalwarts such as Olayinka Sanni, Meg Bulger, Chakhia Cole and LaQuita Owens.
In all, the Mountaineers return just four players from last season's roster, one of whom (Virginia transfer Takisha Granberry) sat out the year in compliance with NCAA rules.
With a team severely lacking experience, Carey has had to temper his expectations and goals for the upcoming campaign.
"People keep asking me how I'm going to evaluate this team. My thing is, we've got to get better," Carey said on Thursday, one day before the Mountaineers begin their preseason practices.
Getting better will entail returning to the basic fundamentals of the college game. Whereas his recent teams have been through battles in the Big East and even on a national level, much of this year's roster has yet to even set foot on the court during a collegiate game. Thus, everything – from practice drills to pregame warmup routines – is brand new.
"We're going to do a lot of fundamentals early and a lot of teaching," Carey explained. "We're going to do a lot of film work and probably even more than I've ever done since I've been here. I've got to build the base this year. I've got to build the program back up and I've got to build the base. That's my key this year."
Despite returning just four players from last season's roster and despite the admitted patience and understanding that he'll need to get through practices and games throughout the season, Carey is encouraged from what he has seen out of his team in limited individual and group workouts leading up to full-scale preseason practices.
"One thing I am glad of is that our players are working extremely hard," he said. "They worked extremely hard in the preseason and have great attitudes. They are working extremely hard in the classroom, but man do we have a lot to learn on the floor.
"I've asked a lot of people to have patience, and I'm going to have to have patience here for a couple of months," admitted the fiery coach. "We've got to start back on basics and doing things that we probably haven't had to do for the last three years. It's just a learning curve."
Perhaps the biggest unknown is what personnel will be contributing. Not only that, but where exactly on the floor will they be playing and how much will they be playing there? Senior point guard Ashley Powell, sophomore guard Sarah Miles and sophomore Liz Repella will all be counted on to play extended minutes for much of the year. So, too, will Granberry, who started 31 games in three seasons at UVA with 18 double-figure scoring efforts.
Aside from those four, however, Carey is not exactly sure of what he has in terms of talent. Over the next several weeks, he and his staff will have to figure out which players work best in certain situations, certain systems and the like.
"I'm going to play the five best. We can't be choosy with getting so many posts and so many guards," he said bluntly. "I'm going to play the five best. If that's five guards, we'll play five guards. We'll adjust our offense and defense to those best five players.
"We'll have to change up a lot of (schemes) because of undersized posts," he continued. "We'll have to change up a lot of things that we do offensively and defensively. We'll have to play a lot more defensively with gimmicks. We can't just play straight up man-to-man as much as I like to. We'll play more zone and even some 1-3-1 and 2-3. We've got to keep you off balance as much as we can because we just don't have the people to match up with you."
Without a doubt, the 2008-09 women's basketball season will be full of ups, downs and intrigue. If early returns are any indication, though, Carey is confident that ultimately, the program will be back to where it was in recent years.
"This group of girls is all great people. They all work hard," he concluded. "They just don't understand what we want offensively and defensively. But if you ask them to do something, they're going to do it exactly how you tell them to do it. I think that we'll continue to get better because of that if the attitude and work ethic stays as good as it is right now."