Story by Luke Cameron/ Contributing Writer
The Lady Raiders return most of its roster from last season, with the notable exception of point guard Dor Saar. Stepping into the point guard role is Savannah Wheeler, a Marshall transfer who led Conference USA in scoring last season with over 20 points a game.
Wheeler, forward Courtney Whitson, and forward Kseniya Malashka are members of the Conference USA Preseason All-Conference Team.
Whitson, the epitome of a stalwart glue player, was third in the nation last year in minutes played with 1,345. She was second on the team in scoring average, first in rebounding, and second in assists. She likes what she sees so far with this year’s team.
“Off-court we have perfect chemistry,” said Whitson. “On-court we’re figuring it out. We’re definitely getting better. It’s going to take some practice. Once we get those exhibition games out of the way, I think that will help our chemistry even more—but so far, so good.”
Whitson thinks Wheeler will be able to fill Saar’s shoes and successfully run the offense as point guard.
“She’s got a better skill set than almost anyone in the nation, and she’ll be a good vocal leader, too, this season,” said Whitson.
Whitson adds that an accidental brush with Wheeler two seasons ago during an MTSU-Marshall matchup has not impeded her and Wheeler’s burgeoning friendship.
“I actually broke her nose my sophomore year,” said Whitson. “We can just go break noses together now, and not each other’s.”
Hall of Fame Coach Rick Insell, in his 18th season at the Blue Raider helm, has accomplished much during his time in Murfreesboro: 405 wins, 10 NCAA tournament appearances, a .735 winning percentage, and three Conference USA tournament championships.
MTSU’s out-of-conference slate has some tough opponents. It includes Mercer, Southern Illinois, Belmont, Texas Tech, Missouri State, Tennessee Tech, Louisville, Memphis, and Houston. The Lady Raiders are counting on those tests to get them ready for a rugged, round-robin Conference USA schedule.
“We always beef up our out-of-conference schedule,” said Insell. “You haven’t got any gimmies on there. I would say it’s a pretty tough schedule.”
Insell finds a balance between setting goals for a season, but not being constrained by them.
“I don’t set them, but yet I do set them,” said Insell. “I talk about them all the time.” “What it takes to get there, the mental toughness it takes to get there, the discipline it takes to get there. We talk about that every day.”
Insell has long been one of the most successful coaches in all of women’s basketball. Entering his 18th season at the helm, he has developed a culture and his players know what to expect when they play step on the floor for him.
“It doesn’t surprise me when I see great players come here because that’s what we’re about. We’re about winning championships. We’re about putting people in the seats. We’re about going to the NCAA Tournament or getting to the WNIT, one. We’ve been to the tournament every single year I’ve been here, and you don’t just luck into that. You set that as your goal, and you go out there and you work hard every day, which we do.”
Insell is thankful for his assistants and for the stability and continuity they bring to the program. “I don’t think anybody in the country (including Connecticut, Tennessee, I don’t care who it is) has got as good of a coaching staff as I’ve got.” His assistants, in addition to the aforementioned, include assistant coach Nina Davis, Coordinator of Operations Eddie Sanders, and Director of Analytics Tom Hodges.
“I’m just very fortunate to have those type of people that are going to make sure that everything goes right in this program,” Insell states. Davis and Brewton were college basketball players themselves; Davis’s number is now retired at her alma mater, Baylor University. “You don’t have your number retired at Baylor just for showing up,” Insell notes.
Insell hopes to see fans and students out at Murphy Center supporting the women’s basketball team this season.
“Women’s basketball in Middle Tennessee means something to people,” said Insell. “Really it means something across the state of Tennessee.”
Rounding out Middle Tennessee’s roster are Gracie Dodgen, Anabel Latorre Ciria, Gracie Hamby, Ta’Mia Scott, Jada Grannum, Lanae Riley, and Meioshe Mason.
The Blue Raiders were 27-8 last season and 14-4 in Conference USA. They were undefeated at home during the regular season and made a charmed run to the WNIT semifinals, falling to Seton Hall by one point on March 31 at Murphy Center.