As the college basketball season kicked off this week with the first official practices, Michigan State women’s basketball head coach Suzy Merchant met with media just before the first practice to answer a few questions previewing the season. Here is the transcript of her press conference, with minor edits and notes for clarity.
How have the Penn State transfers adjusted to life in East Lansing now that they’re on campus and in the swing of the season starting?
They’re doing really well. They have an opportunity to sit out and really grow their game. I was just talking to a player who didn’t transfer or sit out, and wishes in retrospect that she had redshirted. I think at the time kids don’t always want that, they just want to play all the time. But when I look at both of our transfers, Smith especially, they want to move on to the professional leagues. And to get a year of skills development and work more on her face-up, which is something she’ll need, is something they are looking forward to.
It is also nice given the lack of a scout team. Normally they have a few male college students on a scout team, but they are not able to have any this year due to COVID-19 so having players who otherwise are unable to participate in games helps this particular season.
How have you seen them bring out more depth and competition level among existing roster members?
Alisia Smith can run. She is in great shape and really strides things out. She is extremely mobile in transition. So that post-highway that she runs pushes the current post players to really get out of the gate and get up the floor and try to beat her. She is very vocal and mature. She brings a sense of leadership and calmness as well as she has been through the grind of a Big Ten season for three years.
I would say that with Jayla a little bit too in terms that she’s a big power guard, and is a very good offensive rebounder. She forces the action on the defensive boards and makes sure they are making contact, and she understands the grind of a Big Ten season.
How was Moira Joiner’s development?
Merchant says sophomore guard Moira Joiner is a competitor and really improved her outside shot.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 14, 2020
Moira Joiner had a really solid freshman year. Watching her, you see that she is a competitor and if you do anything at this level well, it better be that as you need to do compete. She has really improved her outside shot. I would say her three-point ability, she has a goal to increase her percentage by six percentage points this season from behind the arc. She has really invested in that this offseason leading into the fall. Mo is a natural leader, and was as a freshman. You can’t really call her that as you need to earn your stripes and earn some street cred at the college level first, but she wants to lead and is a very competitive young lady. But her biggest improvement area is from the three-point line.
Who are you most excited about as a freshman/newcomers?
Merchant says she is very impressed with freshman forward Kendall Bostic and her knowledge of the game.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 14, 2020
Merchant says sophomore guard Alyza Winston has made the biggest strides this offseason.
Matilda Ekh out of Sweden decided to defer her enrollment and will join Michigan State in 2021. Due to COVID-19, the US Embassy in Sweden was shut down. As a result, MSU could not manage to get her a Visa in the end. Combined with English being her second language, she decided in conjunction with the program that it was in her best interest to defer to next season. That decision also came when it was less clear there would be a season.
Kendall Bostic is a freshman this season from Indiana. She arrived in incredible shape, and is a very driven young lady. She played a lot of inside-out in high school. As she got a little bit more more mature with the game, and grew, she did build some of that three-point ability and face-up skillset. That is something that MSU plans to continue working with her on. Merchant is very, very impressed with her knowledge of the game, her commitment, and her competitiveness. She hasn’t shied away from asking questions. She has been very impressed with her as a freshman, and she has to do double-duty for MSU as well. Merchant expects she will have to play with her back to the basket some as a face-up four position. Bostic is someone who as a freshman has been really solid.
Looking at the roster, the one person who has made the most stride in the offseason is Alyza Winston. She has winged out, dropped some weight, got herself in incredible shape, and spent a lot of time shooting the ball to the point she is as good as anybody on the team right now. She has been committed. Between your freshman and sophomore year you have your biggest stride having learned the grind of the season and how to manage that. She also probably didn’t like sitting there. She wasn’t in the rotation as much as she wanted to be, and one of her goals is she wants to be a starter for the program.
Lauren Rewers is a graduate transfer for the program, so MSU only has her for one year. She is a 6-foot-5-inch post player with really soft hands. More of a face-up, finesse player who reminds her of Jen Allen. She had a little setback with a hip issue, but that is taken care of now. May be a little behind on conditioning, but working on that now.
Janai Crooms is another transfer. Hopeful that her waiver may be approved. Step one was completed with a thumbs up, so hopeful to see her in a uniform.”
As a reminder that if you haven’t yet, be sure to take a look at our roster update on the team from this summer.
The team won five of the last six down the stretch last season. How much can you carry over and what was starting to click? Also, can you mention some of the veterans and their improvements?
As good a guard*— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 14, 2020
There was a time in that January and early February stretch where we had freshman who were still freshman, and we had five of them. By that time those freshman are done with their high school season. This is when the Big Ten season is ramping up. So them getting used to the level of competition and the toughness that it takes every single day was important. We had some key injuries, including in the very first opening game of Big Ten play we lost our starting center. Then we lost two other starters who were also upperclassmen and veterans. So finding the combinations was part of the struggle I think, and getting into the groove with kids that weren’t used to playing as much getting more time.
Working through some of those confidence issues really helped. By the end of the season the kids were feeling really good about the system and really connecting with each other as well. Clouden is as good of a guard as anybody out there, but she should have had more help out there. Opposing defenses were able to focus on her more as a result of the three key injuries. She handled it well, but she went from being somebody who was our third leading scorer to someone we needed to be the leading scorer. We put a different role on her and she figured it out and embraced it by then.
Mardrekia Cook is back after her Achilles tear in January. I thought she was going to be done, to be honest. This was her third season ending injury. I really thought when she tore it that that was going to be it for her. But the day she tore it, she looked right up at me and told me ‘I’m not going to end like this. I’m coming back Coach, and I’m going to end it the way I write it.’ She has leaned out, she really looks good in terms of conditioning. She is eight months out and is basically full practice. She does more than I thought she could or would at this time. She has been able to really dive in and be a good and positive leader for us because she can physically do the things that need to be done. It is hard to lead from the sideline. Those two would be our most vocal leaders right now, as veteran teams do.
With the uncertainty that looms ahead looking at how college football is going and with testing, how comfortable do you feel with all this?
Merchant says she is excited about COVID testing protocols and looking forward to more up-to-date info. Hoping to have the antigen tests available in early November. There’s uncertainty about the future, but she feels good about it.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) October 14, 2020
The testing piece I am very excited about because right now as we are getting tested, I am looking forward to a daily report showing everyone in the gym is 100-percent ready to go. I think they are now, but again we don’t have the anti-gen tests yet, but we are hoping by early November we have them. But I know the medical staff right now is working through that, and it was only just rolled out for football.
We just try to take it one day at a time, and as silly as that sounds, everyone here is trying to do that, too. We are going to control what we can control, and that’s our little group of people right now. Everyday we come into practice, we feel grateful and blessed that we have an opportunity to play the sport. A lot of kids had their seasons cancelled last spring, and there is a lot of uncertainty around it. But I feel very confident this is going to happen. We have to do some things, and be committed as young people need to make the right choices so that we can continue to play. You can’t do this, and expect this, right? You have to have behavioral changes which I know we haven’t always seen go well. Once we get the daily anti-gen test I will breathe a little better.
I have had one player had to sit out twice, but she has never been positive. She basically had to sit out a month, and she never even had COVID.