By JOEL CARLSON
The Montana women’s basketball team, defending Big Sky Conference champion and preseason favorite for 2015-16, held its first practice of the season Tuesday morning. A primer:
* Patrolling the sideline for the 38th year is Robin Selvig, who enters the season with a career record of 845-275. The 21-time conference coach of the year enters the season ranked No. 5 in career wins among active NCAA Division I coaches behind North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell (961 wins), Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (953), Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer (952) and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma (917).
“The first day of practice isn’t what it used to be,” said Selvig, neither channeling his inner Yogi Berra nor getting all nostalgic. He just means that NCAA rules now allow him to work with his team a couple of times a week leading up to the official start of the season.
“Everybody used to be nervous, but we get to practice with them now, so we’ve already started putting things in.”
* The team’s roster was expected to be 14 deep this season, but it dropped to 13 with Shanae Gilham’s decision to put an end to her playing career after numerous knee surgeries and countless frustrations trying to return to being the player who electrified Dahlberg Arena as a freshman.
It will be a loss for Montana’s fans, because Gilham could do things, instinctually and that nobody else on the floor could do, that had people doing double-takes, wondering if they’d just seen what they thought they’d seen. And that 3-point shot? A quick release and high arc that were signature Gilham.
Alas, the frustrating routine of rehab and saving her legs in practice so that she could go a few minutes in games became too much.
“It’s kind of been a long time coming. I was mentally and physically tired of the whole process. It felt like no matter how much rehab and time I put into it, it was never enough for my knees to heal,” said Gilham. “It’s frustrating. I guess I just didn’t get a very good draw when it comes to knees.”
* Gilham’s departure leaves Montana’s roster at 13, and now nearly half the players on the team (6 of 13) have never played in a college game.
Of those six, second-year guards Maddie Keast and Sierra Anderson are coming off redshirt seasons, and sophomore forward Jace Henderson, of Billings, joined the team last spring after playing volleyball for the Grizzlies last fall.
The Lady Griz have three true freshmen. Henny Hearn is a 6-foot-2 forward from Pocatello, Idaho, and the team added a pair of guards from Montana. McKenzie Johnston, of Helena, is a pass-first point guard; Taylor Goligoski, of Hamilton, can play both guard positions and has more of a scorer’s mentality.
* Of the team’s seven returners, only two — senior guard McCalle Feller and junior forward Kayleigh Valley — have starting experience. Both were honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference last season and picked to the preseason All-Big Sky team earlier this week.
Beyond Feller and Valley, the other five returners — redshirt senior guards Hannah Doran and Haley Vining, redshirt junior forward Rachel Staudacher, junior forward Alycia Sims and redshirt sophomore forward Mekayla Isaak — have three career starts between them.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had more unknowns,” said Selvig, which is saying something considering the memories in his vault of all things Lady Griz date back to the late 70s.
“We’ll have a lot of people playing this season who don’t have much actual experience, but I like this team. We’ve got good kids. But experience counts for something, so it’s something we’re going to have to gain along the way.”
* It can be tough to truly appreciate the things that happen within a basketball season while those things are playing out. So a quick note on the brilliant senior year of Kellie Rubel last winter.
Playing point guard for the first full season of her Lady Griz career, all she did was lead Montana in scoring (without being a high-volume shooter) and assists, the sort of dual production only Fantasia Hilliard of Sacramento State matched from the point.
Rubel rebounded well (5.6/g), shot better than 41 percent for the season, played nearly 35 minutes per game and was a strong perimeter presence for the Big Sky’s top defensive team on her way to earning Big Sky co-MVP honors with Northern Colorado’s D’shara Strange.
One other thing Rubel added to Montana’s offense that fans will notice is mostly missing this season is the team’s point guard being able to create her own shots. Rubel was a good penetrator who could finish at the basket or hit the quick pull-up jumper from 12 feet.
Montana’s point guard in 2015-16, whoever it turns out to be, won’t offer the same complete package, and there is no shame in that. Every point plays the position a little bit differently, and even Rubel was a fifth-year senior before she was able to pull off what she did.
“You run things through the strength of your personnel,” said Selvig. “That will develop as we go.”
Vining could be considered the favorite to start, if only because she’s a fifth-year senior. But knee injuries and Rubel’s minutes played last season have made Vining a fifth-year player with limited experience entering the season.
Vining, who has nearly as many career assists (62) as points (65), is more distributor than scorer, though her shooting percentages — below 29 percent for her career from both 3-point range and overall — are more from lack of playing time than true indicators of her true shooting ability.
“Haley is back and playing well, and her knee is doing well,” said Selvig. “She has experience, but it hasn’t been very much. She’s played in a lot of games, just not a ton of minutes.”
Anderson, maybe not the perimeter shooter Vining is but with more of a mid-range game, had the benefit of going up against the Big Sky co-MVP on a daily basis in practice last season. She’s joined in the point-guard pool by Johnston, who played at Capital High.
“The redshirt year was extremely valuable for Sierra,” said Selvig, who could use Goligoski or even Feller at the point if necessary. “Sierra is playing really well. And McKenzie played point in high school and learned to distribute. She’s a mature freshman.
“I feel good about our point guards. It’s just that they won’t be experienced. After Haley, we have no experience. I don’t expect our point guard to be our leading scorer this year, but they need to take care of it and get it to people, and be able to defend and be a scoring threat.”
* Montana will be good defensively in 2015-16. That’s just a given with a Selvig-coached team. But it will look different than it did the last two seasons with center Carly Selvig anchoring the defensive end.
Against most teams, Montana was able to defend 1-on-1 in the post, with Selvig playing behind the other team’s center (and licking her chops every time an entry pass arrived). Without the need for help defenders, it limited open spot-up shooters on the perimeter.
That formula led to Selvig finishing her career with 258 blocked shots, second most in UM history, and Montana ranking sixth in the nation last year in field goal percentage defense (.348).
With Sims assuming an increased role in her third year, plus Staudacher, Isaak, Henderson and Hearn, plus Valley, who can play inside and out, it requires a different defensive approach.
“It was a team thing last year, like it always is, but Carly enabled us to do some things defensively,” said Selvig. “We could play behind the post without a lot of help, and for most games that was effective. We’d let them get the ball, then they’d go 1 for 9 because Carly swatted the first two.”
* North Dakota’s Mia Loyd was voted the Big Sky Conference preseason MVP and for good reason. She is the best player on the team picked second behind Montana in the preseason polls. To the short list of preseason MVP candidates, add Montana State’s Jasmine Hommes and Valley.
Valley showed flashes early in her sophomore season — she was the MVP of the Lady Griz Classic — but she didn’t truly emerge as a consistent scoring threat until late January. When she did she was a big reason the Lady Griz became a Big Sky championship and NCAA tournament team.
With Selvig and Maggie Rickman starting at the five and four, Valley, voted to the Big Sky all-tournament team, started at the three last year and has the necessary perimeter skills, but working inside seems to best fit her skill set and on-court personality (one word: relentless).
She led the team in shooting at 47.0 percent and got to the line a team-high 152 times, from where she shot 80.9 percent.
Valley is joined by Feller as the team’s only returning starters. Feller, formerly a see-three, shoot-three player, has developed into more of an all-around offensive threat as her career has progressed. She can still light it from the arc — she drained seven triples against Portland State, 67 for the season — but take that away and you no longer take away the only part of her game.
“Both players were capable of big scoring nights and were two players we wanted with the ball in their hands in scoring situations last year,” said Selvig, explaining that the players won’t both average 20 per game this winter but will give the team something to build around as it develops a scoring identity.
“If we get Kayleigh the ball in the post, she knows what to do with it. And we expect McCalle to expand her offensive game even more. She is now much more capable of scoring off the dribble and creating for others than settling for threes, which she did earlier in her career.”
And maybe most important, Feller and Valley give the team two players who can break offense and just go score it when the situation demands, an area in which Rubel excelled.
“You can run all the offense you want, but at some point you need players who can create their own good shots,” said Selvig. “Kayleigh can do that around the basket. She’s either going to get fouled or score. And McCalle will put more pressure on the defense as she expands her offensive game.”
* Montana’s other returners is a group of five headlined by Doran and Sims, both of whom played more than 15 minutes per game last season off the bench. Neither was a big scorer, but they didn’t need to be. Both should pick up part of the scoring load this season.
Expect Sims, biding her time behind Selvig for two seasons, to be a starter from the opening exhibition game, against Carroll on Nov. 4. Doran could be a starter, depending on the fivesome Montana’s coaches ultimately go with. If she isn’t a starter, Doran will still get major minutes off the bench.
“Hannah is going to be critical for us,” said Selvig. “She’s going to play a lot, but when and where? It will all shake out and be determined how they are doing.”
Sims had some big scoring nights as a sophomore — Idaho certainly remembers her, twice — but also 22 games when she scored four or fewer points. That should change with more minutes, more looks, more opportunities. The natural progression of a player developing in the Lady Griz program.
“Alycia should be getting better and better,” said Selvig. “She’s been inconsistent offensively, but as she gets more comfortable, which will happen with more minutes, she’ll keep getting better in that area.”
* Counting its two exhibition games, against Carroll and Great Falls, Montana will play its first six games of the season at home. The regular season opens against Seattle on Sunday, Nov. 15.
* The Lady Griz will make just two road trips in November and December. They will play in Lehigh’s tournament Thanksgiving weekend and hit Colorado State and Wyoming before finals week.
* The 35th Lady Griz Classic will be an afternoon affair this season, with 1 and 3:30 p.m. doubleheaders on Saturday, Dec. 19, and Sunday, Dec. 20. Montana welcomes Utah State, Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic.
* The Lady Griz open Big Sky Conference play on New Year’s Eve, which is a Thursday. Montana will host Northern Arizona at 4 p.m. that afternoon. Sounds like a good way to kick off an evening and night of revelry.
Montana Sports Information