Youth dominates women’s hoops

As the head coach of the U women’s basketball team, Elaine Elliott has seen it all during her 21-year tenure. She has grown accustomed to the ebb and flow of college basketball, and as she prepares her team for competition in the coming weeks, her passion for the game is obvious.

During practice, Elliott is in her element as she drills the core principles of the zone motion offense-an offensive scheme based on cutting to the basket and continuous motion-into her players’ heads. Sometimes she has to physically show them what to do, at other times she simply keeps them going until they get it right.

She will have to do even more teaching this year, considering the lack of experience of some of the team members.

Elliott is heading into a year with six newcomers on the roster, nine underclassmen in all, and she knows that it will take some patience to get things right. Last year’s group featured three seniors and two highly talented sophomores, but this year is quite different.

“We lose eight years of starting experience and replace it with zero,” Elliott said. “We are very aware of the need to be patient and grow this team.”

At this point, after only two weeks of practice, Elliott is not convinced that her team is ready for actual games, but knows it is an inevitability that cannot be avoided.

The Utes will face their first competition of the year at 7 p.m. tonight night in the Huntsman Center as they face Baden Sports, a team of ex-Mountain West Conference players, in the year’s opening exhibition game. The game gives her team a much-needed opportunity to play against someone other than themselves.

“It’s very good to play [a game],” Elliott said. “It’s a much better evaluation time and it’s a better place to look at ourselves and go forward.”

With more questions than answers, Elliott is still uncertain as to who will start at the power forward slot and at center. She has decided that junior Shona Thorburn, a natural shooting guard, will play the point while senior Lana Sitterud, one of the top 3-point shooters in the conference, will start at shooting guard. The returning MWC Player of the Year, junior Kim Smith, will play her usual position as the small forward, but everything else is still up in the air.

“We’ve got three kids, basically, that know how to win on this level,” Elliott said. “Everything else is going to be kids stepping up and saying it’s their turn. We don’t know who that will be or when that will be, and it’s not happening in practice.”

“Our youth is a very significant factor,” she added.

While Thorburn and Smith have long been heralded as two of the best basketball players ever to play at the U, this year will be their first chance to truly bear the burden of the team’s success. In the past, they have always had older players to coach and guide them, but now they will be the leaders.

“Kim and Shona have been the core of this team for the past two years and having them to build around for two more is comforting,” Elliott said. “They will certainly need to move their games forward to help offset the losses of our seniors and to keep the burden off our youngsters, until they are more prepared to contribute.”

Last year the Utes were considered to be an odds-on favorite to make it to the NCAA’s sweet sixteen; this year the Utes are just hoping to win their conference.

The hype surrounding last year’s squad is long gone, and the sting of getting snubbed by the NCAA committee after a 24-7 season that included a conference co-championship is still fresh on the minds of the few veterans on the team.

With a chip on their shoulders, this year’s squad will be tough with determination, but Elliott says that there is no need for unrealistic expectations. Asked if this team deserves more preseason recognition, Elliott said that there are too many youngsters on the team to warrant any special recognition at this point.

“It’s as it should be,” Elliott said. “This team really doesn’t have an identity yet, we haven’t done anything. They shouldn’t have to develop under high expectations.”

“I still expect to be competitive, but realistically they’re still a year away,” Elliott added.

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